Who Invented the Computer?: The Legal Battle That Changed Computing History

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In 1973, Federal District Judge Earl R. Larson issued a ruling in a patent case that was to have profound and long-lasting implications for the dawning computer revolution. Against all expectations, the judge ruled against Sperry Rand Corp., which claimed to hold the patent on the first computer dubbed the "ENIAC" and was demanding huge royalties on all electronic data processing sales by Honeywell Inc. and other large competitors. The judge came to the conclusion that in fact the ENIAC was not the first computer but was a derivative of an obscure computer called the ABC, which had been developed in the late thirties by a largely unknown professor of physics and mathematics at Iowa State University, named John V. Atanasoff.

Looking back today from our digital world at what was then a little-publicized trial, it is clear that the judge's decision had enormous repercussions. If Judge Larson had ruled the other way, in favor of the patent claim, subsequent manufacturers of computing hardware would have had to obtain a license from Sperry Rand, and the course of computing history would likely have been very different from the galloping revolution we have all witnessed in the past three decades.

This book centers on this crucial trial, arguing that Judge Larson correctly evaluated the facts and made the right decision, even though many in the computing community have never accepted Atanasoff as the legitimate inventor of the electronic computer. With meticulous research, Alice Rowe Burks examines both the trial and its aftermath, presenting telling evidence in convincing and absorbing fashion, and leaving no doubt about the actual originator of what has been called the greatest invention of the 20th century.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In 1941, physicist John Mauchly visited his colleague John Atanasoff at Iowa State University for a few days, during which they discussed the computer Atanasoff was working on, later called the Atanasoff-Berry Computer (ABC). Within five years, Mauchly would be celebrated as one of the men responsible for the ENIAC, often referred to as the first computer. Thirty years later, what happened during that visit would become the core of a lengthy patent case and grist for countless speculative articles. Was the ENIAC based on the ABC? In 1973, Judge Earl L. Larson ruled in Atanasoff's favor, effectively declaring him the inventor of the computer as we know it. Among aficionados of the history of computing, there's widespread feeling that Larson blew the call, and it is this perception that Burks is intent on demolishing. Exhaustively citing the trial transcript as well as the conflicted reaction of the computing community, the author amply demonstrates Atanasoff's credibility and Mauchly's evasiveness about that meeting. She also persuasively demonstrates the manifold leap forward the ABC represented. In a way, Burks's account is undermined by the sheer strength of her case: most readers will be entirely convinced after only a couple of chapters. However, this thorough treatment of an important subject is invaluable. Photos. (Feb.) Forecast: People who avidly read the various publications the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) puts out will doubtless become immersed in the wealth of detail Burks presents. But those who can't distinguish a vacuum tube from a light bulb will probably find this methodical and often technical work daunting. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781591020349
  • Publisher: Prometheus Books
  • Publication date: 8/28/2003
  • Pages: 415
  • Product dimensions: 6.31 (w) x 9.26 (h) x 1.41 (d)

Meet the Author

Alice Rowe Burks (Ann Arbor, MI) is an author of both children's books and books and articles on the early history of electronic computers.
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Table of Contents

Figures and Tables 7
Acknowledgments 9
Foreword 11
All Rise 15
A Nothing But the Truth
Ch. 1 Mauchly on the Stand 23
Ch. 2 Mauchly in Deposition 51
Ch. 3 Atanasoff as Witness 79
Ch. 4 Mauchly before Atanasoff 119
Ch. 5 Larson from the Bench 145
B The Court of Public Opinion
Ch. 6 Breaking into Print 193
Ch. 7 Other Voices 211
Ch. 8 Lines in the Sand 247
Ch. 9 The Matter of von Neumann 269
Ch. 10 A Happy Convergence 297
Ch. 11 The Public Eye 327
C Closing Argument
Ch. 12 As It Happened 371
Ch. 13 Wrap-Up 393
Chronology of Key Events 417
References by Chapter 421
Bibliography 439
Index 449
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