Customer Review

46 of 74 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Before you drink the Kool-Aid, there is one thing, October 25, 2010
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This review is from: The Man Who Invented the Computer: The Biography of John Atanasoff, Digital Pioneer (Hardcover)
I admit an underdog story is always appealing, and Smiley does a fantastic job of making the dry topic intriguing. But please understand, this is a highly fictionalized account. It is not "fact" that Atanasoff's machine was a computer at all! The controversy over the importance of Atanasoff's work has been debated, at length, in computer history circles for 35 years. And it has been debunked. This is not news.

(If you know enough about computers to know that they "run a program" then you are capable of understanding why historians consider the ABC more of a calculator than a computer; it had no program! Please look at a real computer history book or at least Wikipedia if you want to know more.)

The legend of Mauchly's treachery seems to grow richer with each telling. Smiley did no original research to find out about him, but instead propagated the evil intent that was ascribed him posthumously by the scorned Arthur Burks. And the author also parrots Burks' highly questionable list of fundamental computer ideas that Atanasoff had, and supposedly Mauchly stole. Binary System? Really? Leibniz might have something to say about that. When push comes to shove, there is no trace of the ABC in the ENIAC. But that would ruin the story. Apparently the author neglected to talk to anybody who actually knew Eckert or Mauchly. She did interview people from Ames, Iowa, where the Kool-Aid is manufactured.

So be forewarned. A gripping story, well-told indeed. But while it pretends to be technically savvy, it sacrifices a lot of truth in order to make a good yarn.
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Tracked by 4 customers

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Showing 1-8 of 8 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Oct 25, 2010 1:50:39 PM PDT
Josh B. says:
Just for information about bias, are you related to the Mauchly in the book?

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 25, 2010 3:26:18 PM PDT
Yeah, guilty. We get a little touchy about the attacks on the old man's character from Ames, Iowa. There's a long history there, so I was prepared.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 25, 2010 8:02:06 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 25, 2010 8:04:45 PM PDT
Josh B. says:
I actually agree with you. Atanasoff's machine wasn't Turing-complete, unlike the Eckert-Mauchly ENIAC. I just noted the name and was curious.

Posted on Nov 6, 2010 8:11:08 AM PDT
What makes this priority debate unlike almost all others is that we have sworn depositions and cross-examined testimony of almost all the principals involved. This means we don't have to rely on historical reconstructions or deconstructions. We can listen to the voices of the people directly involved.

Now you could try to argue that everyone except Mauchly including the judges, the lawyers, the team members, the U. Penn faculty, the project leaders, the patent office and even Eckert were drinking Kool-Aid but I'd find that hard to believe. But even if you just look at Mauchly's own testimony you don't find a wholly unambiguous priority story.

At the end of the day (and of the trial) if Mauchly did invent the computer then it wasn't the one he described in his original patent because that patent was busted on prior art.

Posted on Nov 12, 2010 6:53:13 PM PST
H. Hwang says:
I would believe the judge's verdict more than a Mauchly.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 23, 2010 4:54:31 AM PST
Gini says:
The Sperry attorneys fell down on the job on this one. There was lots of material taken in deposition that would have supported their case, which they did not even enter into the trial. Sperry was interested in spending money on the case only insofar as it would vindicate the patent rights, without regard for who ultimately got "credit" for the inventions. Even if Ms. Smiley read half of the trial records, she would still not have seen the materials that weren't entered into the trial as evidence. BTW, a large part of the reason the patent was broken was that Goldstine and VonNeumann had released papers on how it worked to an international audience over a year before the ENIAC's first public use.
Also it has been pointed out that Judge Larson was predisposed to break the patent by whatever means available, in order to free up the computing industry from having to pay royalties, which he thought would hamper free development of the technology ... and free markets.
Finally, Mauchly was extremely ill at the time of the trial, and his inability to testify coherently under badgering from well-prepared Honeywell lawyers definitely harmed his case.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 23, 2010 5:04:35 AM PST
Gini says:
Despite the thousands of pages of trial records, the judge did not have the whole story. Neither did Smiley. Her frequent insinuations of poor ethical behavior on Mauchly's part are based on pure speculation. E.g., in the section where she describes Atanasoff's work at the NOL, she "wonders aloud" how Mauchly got access to his lab. She says it was probably because Mauchly's father was an eminent scientist in DC, and no doubt arranged for him to get clearance. A little bit of research would have revealed two things: 1 - Mauchly was invited there as a consultant, by von Neumann, and 2 - Mauchly's Dad died in 1928. How would he arrange a clearance for his son in the 1940s???
This is just one example of the uncalled-for speculation and misinformation with which this book is riddled. Smiley seems to have taken the word of people at Iowa State, for many things that are easy to prove different.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 24, 2010 4:44:37 AM PST
chrism823 says:
Not sure why you would, given the judge's lack of expertise. He reminds one of Pontius Pilate, "washing his hands" of the whole affair. Read up on the case.
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