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Literary Paternity Test: Who Fathered The Computer?

Nov 20, 2010 (All Things Considered)

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If you've got an iPhone or a laptop or a high-powered desktop — any computer, really — you can thank bourbon for all of them.

Bourbon and soda, in fact, because that's what Iowa State College physics professor John Atanasoff was drinking the night he thought up the main principles on which all modern computers operate.

But today, almost no one remembers Atanasoff or his inventions. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley set out to remedy that oversight in her new book, The Man Who Invented the Computer: The Biography of John Atanasoff, Digital Pioneer.

Smiley tells NPR's Guy Raz that Atanasoff was looking for a way to solve big complicated equations. Lack of calculating power was a major issue in the 1920s and 1930s, as science advanced but scientists were stuck with slide rules, pencil and paper.

And Atanasoff was stumped. So, Smiley says, one night in 1937, he jumped in his car and started driving east from his home in Ames, Iowa, across the Mississippi River.

"Iowa was dry at the time," Smiley says. "And he saw a sign once he crossed the river into Illinois that indicated that he could get a drink, so he went in and sat down and ordered himself a drink."

As Atanasoff sat in that Illinois roadhouse, sipping his bourbon and soda, inspiration struck.

Supposedly Atanasoff scribbled his ideas on a bar napkin, but Smiley admits that may just be a legend. "Whether he actually wrote about them on a napkin, nobody knows. But they came to him so forcefully that he maybe didn't need to write about them on a napkin. He just went home, found himself a graduate student and put it together."

That graduate student was Clifford Berry, and the machine they built together, known as the Atanasoff-Berry Computer, or ABC, is now acknowledged as America's first computer.

Unfortunately, Atanasoff never patented his invention. And when he went off to war to work on acoustics for the Navy, Iowa State College dismantled his pioneering machine to make way for more office space. The ABC was quickly forgotten.

But one person had paid attention to it: a physicist from Philadelphia named John Mauchly. Mauchly visited Atanasoff's lab in Ames, Iowa, and studied his computer quite closely.

After the war, Mauchly went back to Philadelphia and used what he'd learned from Atanasoff to build a machine most people think of as the first computer: ENIAC, short for Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer.

"Mauchly became known as the inventor of the computer," Smiley says, but it became clear in the 1950s and 1960s that the ideas behind ENIAC had not originated with him.

A lengthy court case eventually vindicated Atanasoff, declaring him the inventor. "Unfortunately," Smiley says, "the results of the case came out the same day the Watergate tapes came out, so whatever was going on with the computer was just lost."

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