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Customer Review

on November 21, 2010
Jane Smiley, per her reputation as an acclaimed fiction writer, produced a book here that is a gripping tale to read. Unfortunately while she is a great fiction writer, she is absolutely not a historian. This is one of the worst history books I've read in a long time. There are several reasons:
- Her "scoop" is not a scoop at all. The debate of the ABC-vs.-ENIAC has been ongoing for many decades among historians of the computer industry
- Unlike a real historian, who would consider all the available evidence, the vast majority of Smiley's documented sources are "experts" from the university in Iowa -- where her main character of this story worked and studied. It's as if she wrote about the Yankees vs. Red Sox, and all her sources were from New York. Would the 'Sox get a fair shake?
- Smiley has little-to-no comprehension of computers. The ABC was an earlier binary calculating device than ENIAC, but so were dozens of other machines! (The binary issue is one of many mistakes on Smiley's part. She claims that Atanasoff INVENTED the binary machine. In fact, binary was in use for calculating devices decades prior.)
- Another reason the ABC was not a computer is because it had no decision-making capability. It required a human to manually tell it what to do with the results of each step in a math problem.
- Regardless of one's opinion of whether ABC was a "computer" or just a calculator, another problem is the ABC was merely electromachanical, not fully electronic. ABC uses vacuum tubes instead of relays to store its 0s and 1s, but other parts of the computer still uses mechanical equipment. It took ENIAC to be an all-electronic computer (not counting Colossus, because that was a single-purpose machine, vs. the debate here over general-purpose machines.)
- As for the issue of the court case and prior art -- does anyone really believe a judge in the early 1970s understood how computers worked from the 1930s and 1940s? The reasons he gave for deciding in favor of Honeywell had nothing to do with understanding who "invented" the computer. The issues were legal technicalities about how patents are filed.
- Another issue presented by Smiley is, "If the judge was so wrong, why didn't Remington appeal?" By the mid-1970s, with companies like DEC decimating the mainframe business, and with personal microcomputers about to bloom, what would have been the point of appealing ENIAC technology from 1945? Context is key!!!

Anyone interested in an objective view of this debate from real historians should visit their nearest university library and comb through back issues of the "IEEE Annals of the History of Computing" journal.
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