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The Man Who Invented the Computer

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  • Posted November 22, 2010

    Well-written but terribly inaccurate!!!

    Jane Smiley, per her reputation as an acclaimed fiction writer, produced a book here that is a gripping tale to read. Unfortunately while she is a great fiction writer, she is absolutely not a historian. This is one of the worst history books I've read in a long time. There are several reasons:
    - Her "scoop" is not a scoop at all. The debate of the ABC-vs.-ENIAC has been ongoing for many decades among historians of the computer industry
    - Unlike a real historian, who would consider all the available evidence, the vast majority of Smiley's documented sources are "experts" from the university in Iowa -- where her main character of this story worked and studied. It's as if she wrote about the Yankees vs. Red Sox, and all her sources were from New York. Would the 'Sox get a fair shake?
    - Smiley has little-to-no comprehension of computers. The ABC was an earlier binary calculating device than ENIAC, but so were dozens of other machines! (The binary issue is one of many mistakes on Smiley's part. She claims that Atanasoff INVENTED the binary machine. In fact, binary was in use for calculating devices decades prior.)
    - Another reason the ABC was not a computer is because it had no decision-making capability. It required a human to manually tell it what to do with the results of each step in a math problem.
    - Regardless of one's opinion of whether ABC was a "computer" or just a calculator, another problem is the ABC was merely electromachanical, not fully electronic. ABC uses vacuum tubes instead of relays to store its 0s and 1s, but other parts of the computer still uses mechanical equipment. It took ENIAC to be an all-electronic computer (not counting Colossus, because that was a single-purpose machine, vs. the debate here over general-purpose machines.)
    - As for the issue of the court case and prior art -- does anyone really believe a judge in the early 1970s understood how computers worked from the 1930s and 1940s? The reasons he gave for deciding in favor of Honeywell had nothing to do with understanding who "invented" the computer. The issues were legal technicalities about how patents are filed.
    - Another issue presented by Smiley is, "If the judge was so wrong, why didn't Remington appeal?" By the mid-1970s, with companies like DEC decimating the mainframe business, and with personal microcomputers about to bloom, what would have been the point of appealing ENIAC technology from 1945? Context is key!!!

    Anyone interested in an objective view of this debate from real historians should visit their nearest university library and comb through back issues of the "IEEE Annals of the History of Computing" journal.

    8 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 13, 2011

    forgotten heroes

    With the passing of Steve Jobs, all type of accolades is being sound out to this man who literally connected the world through the digital age. He is lauded as a technological secular savior by many.
    However we forget some of the real pioneers. One such is John Atanasoff, an immigrant who has a deep curiosity about things and calculating them.
    It was one night in the 1930s at a bar after being frustrated about some calculations that he realize a combination of binary number system and electronic switches together with a moving drum to serve as memory, could yield a powerful computing machine. So as a lowly professor of physics at Iowa State he began on a quest.
    This book told in a biography format chronicles the ups and downs of Atanasoff's life. In it you will learn about his family and most importantly his quest to develop a machine that changed the world. As an entrepreneur he did found a company that catered to military contracts and at 58 retired a wealthy man. However, the quest for finding solutions to problems never wavered.
    Before his death in 1995, he was given in 1990 by then President Bush [41] the Medal of Technology "for his invention of the electronic digital computer and for contributions toward the development of a technically trained US workforce."
    Family, War World II, and other obstacles got in the way for this scientist to totally grasp the spotlight for his discovery. The Man who Invented the Computer: The Biography of John Atanasoff, Digital Pioneer by Jane Smiley tells a fascinating story of science. It also illuminates how quickly our way of life has changed in a short period of time partly because of Atanasoff tenacity to find a way.

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  • Posted October 14, 2011

    Well written, and entertaining with a clear bias

    This is a great read and a nice review of computer history. However the author has clear preferences and belief on the induviduals in the book. She has written a great and entertaining book though that gives a fine insight into the history of computers and the development of the modern computer.

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