So why does this book exist? Surely there’s no doubt who invented the computer, right? I mean it was Babbage. Well, technically he invented the difference engine, which was a forerunner of the computer I suppose. Hmm. Then was it Turing? Although his work was entirely theoretical. Moore? No, that was microprocessors. Ah wait, I know.
Stop there. Before you say it. The right answer is John Vincent Atanasoff and Clifford E Berry, not – as I’m sure you were about to say – Eckert and Mauchly.
You see, back in the 1970s there was a court case over who actually invented the computer.
Sperry wanted to assert the rights to the patents they’d bought from Eckert and Mauchly, and everybody was kind of rolling over and playing dead until Honeywell decided not to play ball. In fact, they went digging. It turned out that two years before either of the two wrote a word, John Atanasoff was building a computer right there in Iowa. And Mauchly went to see him, took notes, and then, in conjunction with Eckert, patented his (and other people’s) inventions as their own.
Burks makes an astonishing case for Atanasoff. The first part of the book details the trial in excellent, readable detail. It seems the man himself came off as a very credible witness on the stand, and his memory was borne out not only by evidence he provided, but by evidence provided by the other side of the case. And Eckert and Mauchly – well, only Mauchly testified. And he wasn’t just vague about things, he was clearly disproven by his own evidence. It was farcical.
The judge ruled the patents invalid. He stopped short of calling Eckery and Mauchly fraudsters because he didn’t want the judgement appealed. It never was, which should tell you something – probably that E&M were afraid of a more damning judgement against them, and Sperry didn’t want to try and flog a dead horse. They lost, and they lost in a definitive manner.
But Eckert and Mauchly didn’t accept this. Unlike the retiring Atanasoff, they kept up a PR campaign to the very end, smearing the judge, the other witnesses, and again, publicly contradicting the actual evidence in the case to make themselves look good. Burks details this campaign, and her and her husband’s attempts to counter it in the second part of the book (her husband worked for them in the creation of ENIAC, so I wouldn’t have assumed he was a partisan for the Atanasoff group, personally).
It’s a shame that Eckert and Mauchly didn’t tell the truth. They genuinely made breakthroughs in random access memory that should be remembered today – and they did build the first programmable (if not stored-program) computer.
The first half of the book is a gripping read, and the second part less so – partly because of the frustration that natural justice is being overturned in favour of “fake news”, big lies and deceit. It’s a good read, and I do recommend it if you want to know a little bit more of the true history of the computing industry rather than the version that certain corporations find it convenient to plug.
I won’t mention the two plagiarists who created ENIAC by name again, they’re not worth it. We can remember them – as thieves, as plagiarists and as liars. We should be remembering the ABC as the first computer, and John Vincent Atanasoff and Clifford E Berry as the inventors of the modern electronic computer.