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Comments, Queries, and Debate: The Atanasoff Story -- Comment on Book Review Disclosure Number: IPCOM000129602D
Original Publication Date: 1988-Mar-31
Included in the Prior Art Database: 2005-Oct-06
Document File: 2 page(s) / 16K

Publishing Venue

Software Patent Institute

Related People

Saul Rosen: AUTHOR [+2]


Department of Computer Science Purdue University West Lafayette, IN

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Copyright ©; 1989 by the American Federation of Information Processing Societies, Inc. Used with permission.

Comments, Queries, and Debate: The Atanasoff Story -- Comment on Book Review

Saul Rosen

Department of Computer Science Purdue University West Lafayette, IN

I usually enjoy reading the book reviews in the Annals, but I was disturbed by A. R. Mackintosh's review of The First Electronic Computer: The Atanasoff Story by Alice and Arthur Burks. The subject matter of the book is very controversial, and Mackintosh appears to accept the Burks version without question and without criticism. Many of us whose interest in the history of computing predates that of Mackintosh by many years are not at all convinced by Burks. John V. Atanasoff stated in his Annals article (Vol. 6, No. 3, 1984, pp. 229- 282) that "distinguished men have said there is enough honor here for everyone, and I agree with this." Yet partisans of Atanasoff, most particularly Burks, claim for Atanasoff far more credit than he deserves and seem intent on denying any honor at all to John W. Mauchly.

In the review Mackintosh states that Mauchly "had every opportunity to read [Atanasoff's] great article in 1940...." Much controversy would have been avoided if Atanasoff had actually published an article or applied for a patent in the 1940s, but he did neither. The great article referred to by Mackintosh is a document that Atanasoff prepared in 1940 as part of his proposal to the Research Corporation. That document was not published until 1973, when it was included in Brian Randell's book The Origins of Digital Computers. Mauchly saw that document in June of 1941 when he visited Atanasoff in Ames, Iowa. Mauchly was not allowed to take away a copy, and he never saw the document again. In order for the Burks story to make any sense at all, we have to assume that, at the time of his visit to Ames, Mauchly knew very little about electronics, but he immediately anticipated many of his future needs and memorized all of the technical details of Atanasoff's computer.

One should remember that at the time both Mauchly and Atanasoff expected that Atanasoff would apply for patents, and that Mauchly would be able to get a copy of the document as soon as the patent application was done. Note also that Mauchly saw Atanasoff's document before he attended the Moore School summer course at which he met J. Presper Eckert. He could not have anticipated that he would be invited to join the faculty of the Moore School. He could not then have anticipated that he would be in a position to design and build large- scale digital computers.

The ENIAC patent claimed the invention of the automatic electronic digital computer. It was obviously dangerous to make the claim so broad, and the patent attorney who included this claim should have known better. In his 1973 decision in the ENIAC patent case, Judge Larsen ruled that "Eckert and Mauc...