Early days of the Digital Age

The Man who Invented the Computer              by Jane Smiley

246 pp., Doubleday 2010  ....   reviewed by David P. Stern


This is an interesting book on a relevant, timely and somewhat controversial subject. Relevant, because hardly anyone's life on Earth is unaffected by computers: they handle communications, control machinery, perform intricate bookkeeping for banks and credit companies, keep track of inventories, store images and contents of books, edge out printed newspapers, and much more. Timely, because relatively few computer users know what makes those machines tick, or are aware of the amazing story of their beginnings (they are still evolving). And controversial... we will come to that too. Their arrival was rather unexpected: even H.G. Wells never included them in any future scenario in his sci-fi books of the first half of the 1900s.

    The full story would be too much for any ordinary book, or for any ordinary reader, so Jane Smiley wisely focuses just on early developments, when inspired individuals introduced basic principles and constructed rudimentary hardware, before solid state electronics gave computers mind boggling versatility, speed and complexity. The main thread here is the life and career of John Atanasoff, physicist at the Iowa State College (later, University) in Ames. Together with Clifford Berry, he designed and built there, at the end of the 1930s, the "Atanasoff-Berry-Computer" (ABC), the world's first electronic computer, using vacuum tubes, a storage drum of electric capacitors and an output encoded on charred computer cards. Those output cards, by the way, missed about one in 100,000 signals, which sounds excellent but is unacceptably high. Shades of hanging chads!

    Quite a few other individuals contributed to early progress. Alan Turing in England formulated the basic theory, Konrad Zuse in Germany devised computers with interlocking bars and telephone relays, "Johnny" Von Neumann further developed the basic concepts and made them widely known, Tommy Flowers (also in England) led the design of the "Collosus" computer that broke German codes during WW II, John Mauchly and Presper Eckert produced "ENIAC", Howard Aitken created "Mark I" at IBM, and others. Venues were as diverse as the secret British facilities at Bletchley Park and Dollis hill, the Moore college of Engineering in Philadelphia, a barn in the Austrian village of Hinterstein and a Minneapolis courtroom.

    All modern computers are based on the mathematical manipulation and storage of numbers, generally encoded in base 2. Such a "binary code," using only numerals 1 and 0, is the simplest way of representing whole numbers; the limited notation can make encoded numbers quite long, but that is a minor problem compared to working with additional digits, as ENIAC did (interestingly, the genetic code uses base 4, very close to binary). This book includes appendices that try to explain binary math to average readers, and the kind of calculations which became feasible with the new tools. Lay readers following Smiley's mathematical sampler may need interest and ability in visualizing complex abstractions!

    All these principles can be implemented in various ways: telephone relays (developed for rotary dials) were quite reliable, but vacuum tubes were much faster and transistors much more durable and compact. Nowadays microscopic transistor circuits deposited and etched on silicon chips have all those virtues, use power sparingly and are blazingly fast. The basic ideas, however, date back to the early testbed computers. They were slow and hampered by unreliable hardware and unrefined software, but theirs is the most interesting part of the story, highlighted here. A special challenge was the storage of inputs, outputs and intermediate results: punched cards and tapes, input plugboards, charred dots on cards, sound waves bouncing back and forth in a tube filled with mercury, electron beams inside early video tubes --none of these lasted long, but they all bear testimony to ingenuity.

    If one thing is missing in this book, it is a better insight into the personal life of John Atanasoff, supremely inventive and systematic, yet also somewhat self-effacing. One would have liked to know him better, indeed to get better understanding of many of the personalities named above, However, we are too late now.

    The final drama played out in 1973, in a courtroom in Minneapolis, where the Honeywell corporation, claiming that Atanaoff was the original inventor of the foundations of the later ENIAC, contested a 1964 patent given to Mauchly and Eckert. By then computers had evolved and had entered wide use, so the question was less of royalties (none of the inventors got rich) than of prestige. After extensive testimony the court awarded the priority to Atanasoff; the controversy ought to have ended there, but as the last chapter makes clear, it did not, and hard feelings persisted.

    Before I opened this book I had read about the early history of computers in a delightful book with many color illustrations, published in 1984 by Stan Augarten and titled "Bit by Bit." If you can find a copy, by all means read it! It presents a wider history than this one, from early mechanical calculators to the Apple computer. But on one point it may be questioned: after telling the story of the first Iowa computer, the book notes that Atanasoff "after leaving Iowa State in 1942 ... lost all interest in computers." That is not at all what one reads here; one just gets the feeling that Atanasoff was overtaken by a larger effort with more generous funding, organized by those who appropriated his ideas. The Iowa school was supposed to apply for a patent after Atanasoff left for the war effort, but neglected to do so.

    Read both books and judge for yourself. I looked up the Amazon.com web site, where both books are offered for sale ("Bit by Bit" through dealers in used books), together with comments by readers and their evaluations, rated from one star to five. Interestingly, "Bit by Bit" is uniformly (and deservedly) rated with five stars, while with "The Man who Invented the Computer," half the reviews (including one by a John Mauchly) award just one star, the lowest rating. There must be some explanation for those skewed ratings and one wonders what it might be. If only the two books could somehow be merged!



Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol)phy6.org .

Last updated 7 August 2011