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Holding The Baby

June 2024
2min read

Calling it simply Physics spoke volumes. As a freshman on the campus of Iowa State University in 1983, I always enjoyed that squat brick building. The wooden floors in the foyer creaked as you entered, waking the sullen graduate students slumped over study tables, probably occupying the same chairs since the night before. The foyer led directly to a large lecture hall with tiny desks that never quite accommodated a notebook. It was the essence of the college experience.

The poorly lit old building seemed to harbor secrets in every dark corner. Just inside the door was a small poster trumpeting the creation of the first digital computer, the ABC, by Prof. John V. Atanasoff and his graduate student Clifford Berry.

Amazing! I thought, and I set off to find it. I scoured the building from top to bottom, even sneaking through a basement door that should have been locked. I found nothing. A professor I asked about it didn’t know what I was talking about. The library was no help either. All the reference books listed John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert from the University of Pennsylvania as the inventors of the computer.

A few years later, when I myself was a grad student, I came across a book titled Atanasoff, Forgotten father of the Computer , by Clark Mollenhoff. I bought it on the spot. I learned that Atanasoff had explained his idea for a digital computer to Mauchly at a conference and that the two men had met at Iowa State afterward. Mauchly had been a guest at Atanasoff’s home and studied what would come to be called the ABC computer that he and Berry had built in the Physics Building.

The problem was that Atanasoff was denied a patent for his machine. Still, Honeywell began a lengthy legal battle against Mauchly, using Atanasoff as a star witness, and finally won in 1973. By that time, though, the point was moot. The history books had been written and had passed him by.

One wet day in 1988, I trudged home through a muddy parking lot between the library and a construction site. Reaching my apartment, I dropped onto the broken-down sofa and flipped on my tiny television. There, live on the screen, was John Atanasoff. The new computing center, the muddy hole I had just passed, was about to be dedicated in his name. I sat up quickly and thought about rushing back, but I didn’t. Why?

Because even if I did manage to meet the man, how could it mean anything to me when it would mean nothing to him? I would be just one of a crowd. Maybe more important, I was annoyed with him. Being an engineer myself, I knew that good ideas should never be left to languish. Atanasoff’s handling of his own patent work had been lackadaisical. The memory drum from his computer had ended up as a footstool! He had not appreciated what he had created, and the great honor that could have been Iowa State’s was gone.

Three people are necessary for an idea to become reality: the dreamer who envisions it, the pragmatist who makes it work, and the salesperson who realizes its potential. Atanasoff may have been the dreamer, but it was Berry (and later Eckert) who built it and Mauchly who saw what the idea meant. How sad that they could not find the grace to work together. I didn’t want to see Atanasoff. Nor would I have wanted to meet Mauchly, embittered after losing the lawsuit, or Berry, who committed suicide, perhaps upon realizing what he had missed out on. What did I want?

I headed back toward the muddy parking lot, passed it by, and reentered the library. At the archives desk I asked for a listing of papers by J. V. Atanasoff. Amazingly there it was. I was shocked that it was not locked in a glass case, and even more shocked that the archivist simply handed it over to me. Hand-typed paper yellowed by almost 50 years. Hand drawings, black-and-white photographs pasted onto the paper. Electronics so simple that even I, a mechanical engineer, could understand it. The poetry of holding something that had launched the computer revolution washed over me. I took a deep breath, and I had what I wanted: the smell of coffee brewing in the kitchen late at night as Atanasoff and Mauchly excitedly pored over these pages; the sound of crickets chirping under the stars on a still, sticky summer night; the birth of an idea that would change the world. I saw it.

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