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The Man Who Invented the Computer: The Biography of John Atanasoff,…

by Jane Smiley

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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 switches, com­bined with an array of capacitors on a moving drum to serve as memory, could yield a computing machine that would make his life and the lives of other similarly burdened scientists easier. Then he went back and built the machine. It worked. The whole world changed.

Why don’t we know the name of John Atanasoff as well as we know those of Alan Turing and John von Neumann? Because he never patented the device, and because the developers of the far-better-known ENIAC almost certainly stole critical ideas from him. But in 1973 a court declared that the patent on that Sperry Rand device was invalid, opening the intellectual property gates to the computer revolution.

Jane Smiley tells the quintessentially American story of the child of immigrants John Atanasoff with technical clarity and narrative drive, making the race to develop digital computing as gripping as a real-life techno-thriller.

From the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Novelist Smiley explores the story of the now mostly forgotten Atanasoff, a brilliant and engaged physicist and engineer who first dreamed of and built a computational machine that was the prototype for the computer. With her dazzling storytelling, Smiley narrates the tale of a driven young Iowa State University physics professor searching for a way to improve the speed and accuracy of mathematical calculations. In 1936, Atanasoff and his colleague, A.E. Brandt, modified an IBM tabulator--which used punched cards to add or subtract values represented by the holes in the cards--to get it to perform in a better, faster, and more accurate way. One December evening in 1937, Atanasoff, still struggling to hit upon a formula that would allow a machine to replicate the human brain, drove from Ames, Iowa, to Rock Island, Ill., where, over a bourbon and soda in a roadside tavern, he sketched his ideas for a machine that would become the computer. As with many scientific discoveries or inventions, however, the original genius behind the innovation is often obscured by later, more aggressive, and savvy scientists who covet the honor for themselves. Smiley weaves the stories of other claimants to the computer throne (Turing and von Neumann, among others) into Atanasoff's narrative, throwing into relief his own achievements. (Oct.) (c)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Several popular works have dealt with the question of who invented the computer, and novelist Smiley has obviously read and deeply pondered them all. She emerges from her immersion in binary arithmetic, vacuum tubes, and eccentric geniuses with a scintillating narrative synthesis that agrees with the prevailing technical opinion (Who Invented the Computer? by Alice Burks, 2003) that John Atanasoff, a mechanical fiddler extraordinaire, had the first computer functioning by 1941. But off the beaten path in Ames, Iowa, it attracted little notice after its builder diverted into war work, as did another physicist who had seen Atanasoff’s machine: John Mauchly, whose idea-sprouting indiscipline Smiley draws as vividly as she does Atanasoff’s cantankerous technical tenacity. Mauchly was central to the construction of ENIAC, once considered the first computer. Did he filch Atanasoff’s ideas, asked litigation in the 1970s? Before arriving at the courthouse, Smiley integrates into the story profiles of the computer theorists and builders of the 1940s, including Alan Turing, John von Neumann, and Konrad Zuse. Told with self-propelling fluidity, Smiley’s fine account will certainly draw more than the technophile base due to her literary cachet. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: This biography written by acclaimed novelist Jane Smiley is the first entry in Doubleday’s Great Innovators series. --Gilbert Taylor
  GalenWiley | Apr 5, 2015 |
Interesting story, but the focus was upon the legal and patent issues involved with proving Atanastoff to be the first inventor of a working computer. One gets lost between all the maneuvering of the principals and companies. The best part of the book is a clear exposition of the basic principles of a digital computer. ( )
  KirkLowery | Mar 4, 2014 |
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. ( )
  ljhliesl | Jun 1, 2013 |
Jane Smiley has written a facinating account of the early history of computer developments. While she has focused on the story of John Atansoff, the whole history of these early inventors, particularly in US, is interwoven. She does an excellent job of portraying the various personalities for each of them are real "characters".
This book does well in answering the question, who invented the computer? While most students are aware the ancient Babbage computing engine and the most war ENIAC, the real answer to this question is not a simple one. Nearly simultaneous developments, both theoretical and practical, were underway in Iowa (John Atanasoff), England (Alan Turing), and Germany (Konrad Zuse). Then, as Jane explains so well, all of these efforts were over come by the events of World War II.
In the US, John Atanasoff's efforts were side tracked by is assignment to other research efforts. World War II also brings John von Neumann and the John Mauchly/ J. Presper Eckhart (ENIAC) team to the forefront. In England, Alan Turing becomes a principal in the use of computers at Bletchley Park to break the Enigma code. Also, in England, we see the more advanced Colossus computer developed by Thomas Flowers (though less well known) to break the more complex Tunny used by German high command. Finally, in Germany, Konrad Zuse is overcoming war time shortages, bureaucratic indifference, and finally Allied bombing raids to continue his developments.
In summary, Jane Smiley has succeeded in clarifying some the most important events of the computer's early history and its colorful characters. ( )
  libri_amor | Jun 16, 2011 |
I thought that Norton/Atlas, with their Great Discoveries series, pretty much proved that having famous novelists write scientific biographies is a bad idea. Now Doubleday seems to be making the same mistake with their Great Innovators series. It's a bit disappointing to read a work of history that makes such extensive use of secondary sources, quotes directly from Amazon.com customer reviews, and makes frequent reference to the ideas of Malcolm Gladwell. On top of all that, I didn't even think that the writing was particularly good. ( )
  wanack | Jan 6, 2011 |
Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
"The narrative shuffles painstakingly along; reading it is like watching a very old man pack for vacation. The characters feel morally and intellectually uninhabited, lighted from without rather than within. The scientific developments at the heart of modern life are never satisfactorily explained (except in the wonderfully lucid appendices). Despite its tantalizing material, “The Man Who Invented the Computer” ultimately offers both too little computer and too little man. "
added by lorax | editNew York Times, Kathryn Schulz (Nov 26, 2010)
 
Neither Steve Jobs nor Bill Gates invented the computer, despite the impressions they tend to leave. The guy with the best claim to making the first "automatic electronic digital computer" was John Atanasoff, a young associate professor of physics at Iowa State College.

So why isn't Atanasoff as famous as Gates or Jobs or even his contemporary, Alan Turing? As novelist Jane Smiley (A Thousand Acres, Moo) explains in her biography of Atanasoff, The Man Who Invented the Computer, Iowa State didn't really grasp what he had wrought: "His ideas were so advanced that he had to prove they were worth something to people who did not really understand them."

The inventor didn't always play nice with others, and World War II, though an enormous stimulus to computer development, got in the way of both patent processes and scientific information sharing.

Atanasoff, who earned a doctorate in theoretical physics from the University of Wisconsin in 1930, began working on a calculating machine because, Smiley writes, "He saw over and over again that all scientific and engineering progress would be retarded until some sort of breakthrough in methods of calculation." Smiley describes him as a classic American innovator, inquisitive, practical and hands-on. By 1938, he had worked out the basic principles of his machine, and it was operational by mid 1940. Atanasoff's invention was a milestone, but also only a stepping-stone to the personal computers we depend on today.

Some passages of Smiley's bio are challenging simply because the topics, mathematical and mechanical, require effort to grasp, but her writing is clear and crisp. She finds plenty of drama and personality along the way: "There was no inventor of the computer who was not a vivid personality, and no two are alike."

Whether this was a labor of love or a bread-and-butter job for the eclectic Smiley, readers can be grateful she used her intelligence and narrative skills for this story.

 
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0385527136, Hardcover)

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 switches, com­bined with an array of capacitors on a moving drum to serve as memory, could yield a computing machine that would make his life and the lives of other similarly burdened scientists easier. Then he went back and built the machine. It worked. The whole world changed.

Why don’t we know the name of John Atanasoff as well as we know those of Alan Turing and John von Neumann? Because he never patented the device, and because the developers of the far-better-known ENIAC almost certainly stole critical ideas from him. But in 1973 a court declared that the patent on that Sperry Rand device was invalid, opening the intellectual property gates to the computer revolution.

Jane Smiley tells the quintessentially American story of the child of immigrants John Atanasoff with technical clarity and narrative drive, making the race to develop digital computing as gripping as a real-life techno-thriller.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:44 -0400)

"The Man Who Invented the Computer" is a real-life thriller that will change how we think of digital computing.

» see all 2 descriptions

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