The digital computer is usually credited as the invention of two professors at the University of Pennsylvania, J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly. Funded by the United States Army, the ENIAC computer was designed to calculate tables for launching artillery shells accurately in World War II, but was not completed until after the war in 1946. Unlike earlier computers that had a fixed purpose, ENIAC (meaning “Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer”) could be reprogrammed to handle many different purposes. But were Eckert and Mauchly really the pioneers of today’s modern digital age?
Actually no. The real inventors of the digital computer were physics professor John Atanasoff and his student Clifford Berry who created the first digital computer in a laboratory at Iowa State College. The ABC (“Atanasoff-Berry Computer“) was built in 1939, yet by the time of ENIAC’s introduction to the world, the ABC had been forgotten. What had happened? World War II broke out and Iowa State as well as Atanasoff and Berry simply didn’t realize the power of what they had created. Atanasoff was called up by the Navy to do physics research, eventually participating in the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll.
When Atanasoff returned to Iowa State he found that his invention was gone to make room for other equipment—because the ABC was built piece-by-piece in the laboratory, it was too big to move out and so it had to be dismantled. Iowa State had decided that a patent was too expensive and so never filed one. John Atanasoff went on to gain recognition for a number of inventions involving physics, but the ABC was mostly forgotten.
In the 1970s there were a handful of companies that saw the great potential in the electronic computer. Sperry Rand Corporation, which was formed through a series of mergers and acquisitions including the Eckert–Mauchly Computer Corporation, held U.S. Patent 3,120,606 for the digital computer. In 1973, Sperry Rand sued Honeywell, Inc. and Honeywell reciprocated. Thus began one of the most important intellectual property cases in history.
During the research for this case, Honeywell found out about John Atanasoff and the ABC, which became pivotal information. The case was tried for 7 months after which Judge Earl R. Larson handed down his decision that stated, among other things, that the Eckert-Mauchly patent was invalid.
Some people have disputed this finding, arguing that this was a “legal” finding or a “loophole” or that a lawyer or a judge simply couldn’t understand the complex engineering issues involved. Here’s my take on this.
- Both sides had a lot of time, and access to technical experts, to make the best case they could.
- So much was at stake, and a huge amount of money was spent to bring out the truth. Both sides had very significant resources. If a case with this much at stake could not convince a judge after seven months, then there is little hope for any IP case.
- Evidence was found and witnesses verified that John Atanasoff had attended a conference in Philadelphia where he met John Mauchly and described his work. He then invited Mauchly out to Iowa where Mauchly spent several days examining Atanasoff’s computer and many late nights reading Atanasoff’s technical specifications. Letters were produced, signed by Mauchly, that thanked Atanasoff for his hospitality and for the tour of his amazing invention.
- Mauchly testified at the trial. He admitted that he had met Atanasoff and eventually admitted that he had examined the ABC and read its specification.
- Mauchly and Sperry Rand Corporation were challenged to produce a single piece of evidence that Mauchly or Eckert had written about or researched digital electronics before Mauchly’s meeting with Atanasoff. The best Mauchly could do was produce a circuit for a model railway flasher that he claimed was a binary counter—it counted from 0 to 1 and then back to 0.
In fact, it became clear that Mauchly and Eckert attempted to claim much more credit than they deserved and tried to deny credit to others. They had actually greatly improved on Atanasoff’s original design. Had Eckert and Mauchly been more humble, had they added Atanasoff’s name to their patent, had they patented their own improvements instead of the entire invention, they may have given Sperry Rand the most powerful IP in technology history. Instead the invention of the computer entered the public domain without restriction, and the rest is history…
For a good book on the subject, read The First Electronic Computer: The Atanasoff Story by Alice R. Burks and Arthur W. Burks.