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The Man Who Invented the Computer

3.43 of 5 stars 3.43  ·  rating details  ·  129 ratings  ·  43 reviews
From one of our most acclaimed novelists, a David-and-Goliath biography for the digital age.

One night in the late 1930s, in a bar on the Illinois–Iowa border, John Vincent Atanasoff, a professor of physics at Iowa State University, after a frustrating day performing tedious mathematical calculations in his lab, hit on the idea that the binary number system and electronic s
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ebook, 304 pages
Published October 19th 2010 by Doubleday (first published January 1st 2010)
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David
In the Balkans, you hear many seemingly crazy things. Some of them are true.

For example, in the late 1980's, I lived in Bucharest. During that time, several unwashed strangers approached me, shaking with terror, to whisper that the secret police were building a network of secret tunnels under the city, one of which had an outlet in the music school across the street from the U.S. Embassy's Consular Section building.

I listened politely but thought: yeah, right, whatever, a network of tunnels....
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Chet
A great non-geek, but technical report of the WW II era computer pioneers including Turing, von Neumann, Zuse (in Europe), and others. Atanasoff has been presented by others as being an underdog, but he was apparently a crank who died rich. Was Atanasoff's graduate assistant later killed because he was the only other witness in a patent trial who could testify to their use of vacuum tubes as relays? Zuse had a blind programmer and was trying to build his computer in Europe while it was being bom ...more
Toby
The history of computing is one of my favourite topics. While I had heard about Atanasoff and his ABC computer before, and even that it was judged to be the first computer in a legal case, I never knew the details of either. This book does a good job of covering both the ABC and the early years of modern computing.

Despite the book's name, Smiley realizes that one person did not invent the computer. What we think of as a "modern computer" is a broad collection of ideas, including high-speed rando
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Adam Oline
An interesting look at the various characters involved in the invention of the computer. Whether John Vincent Atanasoff truly invented the computer or not is still a controversial subject among some circles, but there is no doubt that Atanasoff and graduate student Clifford Berry invented a computing machine while Atanasoff was a physics professor at Iowa State University (then Iowa State College) in 1939. The device was created specifically to solve differential equations to aid Atanasoff in so ...more
Pablo
First book I've read from Jane Smiley and I'm quite pleased with her writing style, it made the book an engaging and easy read. Her main agenda seems to be; defend John Atanasoff from the people accusing him of being a backstabber whom got to die rich out of other people work. She also tries to give him credit where is due, since Atanasoff has never been a well know figure in the "who invented the computer" field and as she shows, he indeed was a very important player in the whole saga. Since th ...more
Pierre Lauzon
This is a concise (204 text pages), well written biography of the inventor of the modern digital computer. John Atanasoff’s concepts and insights into binary operation, random access memory (using capacitors in rotating drums), and iteration presaged virtually all modern computers.

The book also details, through relevant vignettes, other notable individuals in the history of computing such as Alan Turing, John von Neumann, Konrad Zuse, and Tommy Flowers.

Atanasoff had his flash of insight while si
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Lizzie
Thus was an interesting biography of a largely unknown man who greatly contributed to the technology that changed the world. I enjoyed the description of his life and understanding what made him tick. Jane smiley does an amazing job of explaining incredibly complex processes in a way that any layman can understand. However, the latter half of the book detailing the legal procedures and patent wars drags on unnecessarily. But, if you want a good description of how early computers worked, overview ...more
Andrew
I set this book aside over a year ago for some reason, and over that time my opinion of it became unfavorable. When I finally picked it up again I was surprised to find it much, much better than I remembered. I think I must have been distracted by something external, and then backed into a poor recollection of the book to justify not finishing. Funny how the mind works...

In any case, there's a lot going on in this short book. The main narrative concerns a physicist named John Atanasoff, who desi
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Stephany
I adore Jane Smiley, Atanasoff deserves more recognition and this book is necessary, and Smiley's work A Thousand Acres is beyond brilliant. But this book just didn't grab me the way other histories of technology often do. The people stories are strong and, if you are looking for a biography of Atanasoff as a person, this is a very good book.

I give it three stars because the technology side was not strong enough for my tastes in two ways. First, it did not go into sufficient depth to make a par
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Craig Pittman
A lively and fascinating non-fiction book by one of America's best novelists, incorporating not just a history of the computer but also a spy story, a murder mystery, a courtroom drama and an examination of the nature of creativity. This book was full of surprises -- for instance, I had no idea before reading this book that the inventor of the computer, John Atanasoff, had grown up in Florida, where his father worked at a phosphate mining company, and he got his B.S. from UF. All in all he was a ...more
Cheryl Gatling
I think I would have liked this book better with a less contentious title. Jane Smiley, who is an Iowa State professor, wants to defend the honor of John Atanasoff, also an Iowa State professor. The critical reviewers on Amazon argue that as a novelist and not a techno-geek, Smiley doesn't know enough about the science involved to judge whose ideas were most important in the development of the computer. And I don't either. But she does convince me that John Atanasoff did not get his due. He was ...more
David P


This is an interesting book on a relevant, timely and somewhat controversial subject. Relevant, because hardly anyone's life on Earth is unaffected by computers: they handle communications, control machinery, perform intricate bookkeeping for banks and credit companies, keep track of inventories, store images and contents of books, edge out printed newspapers, and much more. Timely, because relatively few computer users know what makes those machines tick, or are aware of the amazing story of t
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Lisa
Think of “the first computer” and you probably think of the Eniac, that room-filling contraption, all lights and wires, that had less overall computing power than now comes in a $10 digital watch.
The Eniac is generally considered the first computer, but author Jane Smiley again turns her hand to nonfiction to tell a different story about the invention of the computer.
John Atanasoff, the son of immigrants, had the mind of a mathematician and the sense of an inventor from childhood. A precocious s
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Steven
The Man Who Invented the Computer: The Biography of John Atanasoff, Digital Pioneer is an interesting read about how the computer was invented. However, I believe that the title of the book is somewhat misleading. Although the book does include a biography of John Atanasoff, considered the inventor of the computer, it also details the lives of other pioneers in the development of the computer. The book takes us through the development of the first computer at Iowa State College in Ames and then ...more
Marty
I was interested in reading this book because John Atanasoff built his computer while he was at Iowa State in the 1930s and also because the author of the book used to teach at Iowa State. I think the book is mis-titled. It should be "The History of the Computer" or "The Story of the Computer Patent." It really isn't very much about the man John Atanasoff, but about how he really was the first one to come up with the idea for an electrical computing machine and the first to build one. The book t ...more
Matt Kuhns
On the whole, informative and entertaining. I may have something of a different perspective from an imaginary “neutral” reader, admittedly, having spent nearly half my life as a student or alumnus of Iowa State University, and thus knowing the story of the Atanasoff-Berry Computer as something of a local legend, one might say. Smiley’s version of the story broadly resembles the simplified, somewhat self-deprecating version of the ABC legend I condensed down for my own purposes, i.e. yes, the com ...more
Roger Blakesley
I learned much about the first digital computer that I didn't know from this book. When I was a student at Iowa State in the early '80s a freely touchable replica of the Atanasoff-Berry computer was in an alcove of the Physics buiding and students could walk by and touch touch it if they wished; but they never did.

The next time I saw that replica, it was fully restored and behind glass in hushed conditions in a museum in Des Moines, Iowa thirty years later. I laughed at the irony. I think the re
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Chris
It's an interesting story, but not quite gripping.

Pros: Discusion of Turing & von Neumann, Colossus & WWII.

Cons: One of the key elements is the aspects of the original ABC computer which were reproduced (copied) into ENIAC/EDVAC, but I didn't get much feeling for what innovations were actually copied. Perhaps this would have been a stronger connection if Smiley was a computer scientist or engineer. There is a lot (too much?) about John Mauchly, who just isn't that interesting, and whose
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David Schwan
This book really deserved two reviews, a two star rating for the first 130 pages, and a four star rating for the remaining 90 pages.

The first part of the book outlines the early work on computing in the US, UK, and Germany. This book makes a very good case for the notion that John Atanasoff at Iowa State University is the father of the electronic comnputer. None of the devices described in the book could be considered modern computers. They were manually programmed, and needed to be re-wired to
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Jennifer
If you like computers as well as a good story, this beats the pants off "The Social Network". There are geniuses, idea-stealers, Nazi-code-breakers, bomb-trajectory-planners, a courtroom drama, and a few tragically mysterious deaths. At times I was wondering why the title was "The Man Who..." since there were so many different innovators portrayed--but this becomes clear in the end. The question of whether anyone has a right to own scientific ideas is also brought up, as well as how very differe ...more
Eric
Latest version of the story of the invention of the computer, with details from the lives and ideas of Atanassof, Berry, Eckert, Mauchley, Turing, Flowers, von Neumann, Zuse, and many others. Atanasoff comes off as an amazing inventor who could not be stopped and whose role in the invention was not laid bare until the 1971 patent trial between Sperry Rand and Honeywell (with CDC). The record is clear. The kind of persistent, dogged, undeterred inquisitiveness of people like Atanasoff and Zuse is ...more
Eric Andresen
I read this book while waiting on jury selection. Good News / Bad News. The good news is I waited long enough to read this whole book, the bad news I was selected.

This book had some local interest for me because it turns out that the computer was invented in a bar in Rock Island Illinois near where I live.

Lots of good info the very early days of computing, just before the computer was invented and the early years of its development.

The inventor was a thirty four year old John Atanasoff from I
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Doug Dale
This book started slow, but picked up in the middle. The multiple historical story lines and personalities are hard to sort out, especially early. As the book proceeds into WWII, the story becomes very intriguing (it's amazing just how much the war affected the development of the computer) and the later story of the court battle over patents (and credit for the digital computer's invention) is also interesting. Good for those who are interested in the history of computing. Others may not find it ...more
Sean Helvey
Highly informative, but scattered at times, and a bit slow toward the end. I agree with the author in that this left me wanting to learn more about John Von Neumann.
Art
This was a bit of a tough slog, though it picks up a little toward the end when she starts in on the patent trials. I expected the author (a Pulitzer winner!) to really suck me in to the whole human drama surrounding this typically geeky subject, but I found myself caring little about the cast of characters. However, now I know that the correct response is not really "ENIAC, by Eckert & Mauchley" when someone asks me who invented the computer.
Lisa Houlihan
So far (p. 28) Smiley has asserted a couple of head-scratchers: "The measurement required by an analog calculator would be replaced by counting. Since this is similar to the way a child counts on his fingers, this came to be known as digital calculation."

This is more the early cross-pollination that led to computers rather than the biography of a single man; the title is misleading but the book is interesting so that's okay.
Carl
Jane Smiley gives us a lot about the many people involved in the numerous, near-simultaneous invention of the digital computer. She makes a pretty good case for Atanasoff as the first to really come up with the binary implementation that was ultimately successful, but she was not able to make it a thrilling tale. I bogged down, and eventually, gave up for something more interesting on the life-is-short basis.
Sarah
Not just the story of the man who invented the computer but also of other people who invented computers secretly from spare parts in Nazi Germany or to break codes in wartime England and could never speak about their work...or stole the idea for the computer and succeeded in taking all the credit...now I just need to find a book that explains how we got from room-filling calculating machines to this iPad.
Michael
Thoroughly enjoyable account of how early computers came to be. I was somewhat shocked to realize I had never heard of several of the key players, Atanasoff in particular. Now I want to read more about
von Neumann. From how he was described he may have been the original open source engineer.
John Brugge
Lots of history threads woven into this story, from the effect of WWII to the lives and personalities of Alan Turing, Tony Flowers and John Mauchly, all key players in the decades long drama. It's clearly more about John Atanisoff than anyone else, but I still felt it left him behind a bit too often. Still, a good geek history book.
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Jane Smiley is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist.

Born in Los Angeles, California, Smiley grew up in Webster Groves, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, and graduated from John Burroughs School. She obtained a A.B. at Vassar College, then earned a M.F.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. While working towards her doctorate, she also spent a year studying in Iceland as a Fulbright Scholar
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More about Jane Smiley...
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