Lisa's Reviews > The Man Who Invented the Computer: The Biography of John Atanasoff, Digital Pioneer

The Man Who Invented the Computer by Jane Smiley
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Jan 10, 2011

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bookshelves: nonfiction
Read in December, 2010

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 student, he went into physics and earned a doctorate at 26. But the complicated calculations necessary for much of his work took up an inordinate amount of time and effort, so he began to think about, and work on, a machine that would perform these functions accurately and quickly.
At the same time, Alan Turing in England — best known for his work as an Enigma codebreaker — and Konrad Zuse in Germany were working on calculating machines of their own. And others in the U.S. had projects of varying degrees of similarity in the works.
Atanasoff’s machine was uniquely innovative, and though he shared information about it with others, he didn’t realize his ideas were being stolen. He pressed Iowa State College, where he was employed, to patent his machine, but the college never filed the paperwork. The inventors of the Eniac went on to patent their creation.
However, a lawsuit that culminated in a federal court decision in 1973 invalidated the Eniac patent, saying that the machine “derived that subject matter from one Dr. John Vincent Atanasoff.” After the decision, the world of computing opened up, and then exploded into what we know today.
This story is involved and complicated — a “peculiar and tortured path,” as Smiley puts it — with lots of people, and the author does a good job of helping us keep all the facts and the characters straight. Plus, the book is filled with fascinating facts, and the technical details are explained in such a way that they are clear to non-techies but don’t feel “dumbed down.”
The writing feels a little flat sometimes, perhaps because Smiley is pulling in information from numerous sources and having to simplify complex concepts and systems (there are more detailed explanations in the appendices). But overall, the book is an interesting look at the origins of what has become an indispensable part of our society.

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