Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, November 22, 2010

reader's report: Jane Smiley

Well, the recent traveling and busyness may have kept me from posting, but it didn't keep me from reading. Nothing keeps me from reading. So here's what's been going on:

I've been working my way through Tony Judt's magisterial Postwar, but it's a very large book — exactly the kind of thing the Kindle was made for, by the way — and I've been pausing for other tastes. For instance, I read Jane Smiley's brief and brisk The Man Who Invented the Computer: The Biography of John Atanasoff, Digital Pioneer, the title of which is either misleading or ironic or, probably, both. Smiley begins her narrative with a straightforward claim:

The inventor of the computer was a thirty-four-year-old associate professor of physics at Iowa State College named John Vincent Atanasoff. There is no doubt that he invented the computer (his claim was affirmed in court in 1978) and there is no doubt that the computer was the most important (though not the most deadly) invention of the twentieth century.

But by the end of the narrative, less than half of which is about Atanasoff, she writes, more realistically and less definitively,

The computer I am typing on came to me in a certain way. The seed was planted and its shoot was cultivated by John Vincent Atanasoff and Clifford Berry, but because Iowa State was a land-grant college, it was far from the mainstream. Because the administration at Iowa State did not understand the significance of the machine in the basement of the physics building, John Mauchly was as essential to my computer as Atanasoff was — it was Mauchly who transplanted the shoot from the basement nursery to the luxurious greenhouse of the Moore School. It was Mauchly who in spite of his later testimony was enthusiastic, did know enough to see what Atanasoff had done, was interested enough to pursue it. Other than Clifford Berry and a handful of graduate students, no one else was. Without Mauchly, Atanasoff would have been in the same position as Konrad Zuse and Tommy Flowers — his machine just a rumor or a distant memory.

Each person named in that paragraph gets a good deal of attention in Smiley’s narrative, along with Alan Turing and John von Neumann, and by the time I finished the book I could only come up with one explanation for Smiley’s title and for her ringing affirmation of Atanasoff’s role as the inventor of the computer: she too teaches at Iowa State, and wants to bring it to the center of a narrative to which it has previously been peripheral. A commendable endeavor, but not one that warrants the book’s title.

In the end, Smiley’s narrative is a smoothly readable introduction to a vexed question, but it left me wanting a good deal more.


  • The seed of the idea for the computer has been around since at least the 19th century. Charles Babbage's unfinished Analytical Engine, based on punch cards used for Jacquard's loom, would have fit the criteria for a modern programmable computer.

  • Smiley does discuss Babbage, and gives the history of his two Engines, but doesn't think the modern computer is invented until Atanasoff (and others) settle on the use of binary operations and electronic circuits.

  • The modern computer could truly be said to have come into its own with a completely electronic machine. No moving parts, and blistering electronic speeds. That means ENIAC, which by the way did NOT use binary operations, but decimal. Where does this leave Atanasoff's machine--being binary but electromechanical?

  • To the previous poster's question - I think it leaves the machine in the basement of a building at Iowa State gathering dust; waiting for someone who had a single purpose application to work on and plenty of time to kill as the machine, when it worked, is reported to have been no faster than a manual effort to solve certain equations.

    As for lack of funds to complete it, the father of this machine had an ample budget and was expected to build something truly useful for the Naval Ordnance Laboratory (NOL) but failed so miserably that his funding was cut off.

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