Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

The man who invented the computer

By David Fisher - posted Friday, 19 July 2013

In 1951 I went to work for the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation (EMCC). I worked on the development of the Univac, the first commercially available computer. I was awed by J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly, the two men who I thought invented the computer. Mauchly was an avuncular man who I could not help liking. Pres Eckert was an acerbic man with an acute intelligence. In 1952 I was one of the programmers who worked on the 1952 US presidential elections. Our first prediction had Eisenhower the winner by 443 electoral votes. The network would not believe it and ordered us to adjust the results so that Eisenhower would win in a closely run race. He actually got 442 electoral votes so the initial prediction was close to the mark. The news of our initial prediction got out, and the company got much favourable publicity.

By then EMCC had been acquired by Remington Rand. I was invited to lunch with some of Remington Rand's top salesmen. They were sleek, jovial, personable and completely unaware of the potential of the computer. (I wasn't much better.) With luck they thought they might sell fifty of the machines a year to universities. The salesmen were entirely ignorant of the technology that went into the computer and planned to sell them by entertaining the purchasing agents in the same way they might get an order for typewriters. Although IBM was not involved in the early development of the computer their management saw the potential as a business machine and dominated the early computer market. Later IBM suffered from its own form of blindness in not foreseeing the popularity of the personal computer and lost its market dominance.

Remington Rand (later Sperry-Rand after merging with Sperry Gyroscope) also employed Grace Murray Hopper who realised that computers were limited at that time by the difficulty of communicating with them and set out to develop languages with which to communicate with the computer. In that early time there was only machine languages with commands such as "move the contents of cell x to cell y". With my unerring instinct for avoiding the main chance I did not take the opportunity I had to join Hopper's team in developing computer languages. I was more interested in the architecture and problem solving capability of the computer itself. After being part of the design team for the development of the Livermore Atomic Research Computer (LARC) my guilt which had been welling up concerning working on devices which contributed to the death of human beings surfaced, and I resolved to do no more work which had military applications. Since I had concentrated on scientific rather than business applications, I went into medical and other non-military applications of technology..


That was all years ago, and my current interest in technology is confined to reading its history. In books on the great inventors in human history, Hopper, Eckert and Mauchly are the inventors given credit for ushering in the computer age. Hopper was an intelligent visionary who deserves her place in history, but Smiley's book, "The Man who Invented the Computer" tells of John Vincent Atanasoff who was actually the inventor of the device for which Eckert and Mauchly get the credit.

I don't want to recount the details of Atanasoff's fascinating life including his family background, his accomplishments and the details of the theft of his ideas by Mauchly as I think Smiley's well-written book should be read for her account. Honeywell had challenged the validity of the computer patents held by Sperry Rand on the basis of Eckert and Mauchly's work. They contended that the originator of those ideas was Atanasoff. From p. 193-4 of Smiley's book:

In October [1973], [Judge] Larson decided in favour of Honeywell, in no uncertain terms. He stated, "Between 1937 and 1942, Atanasoff, then a professor of physics and mathematics at Iowa, Ames, Iowa, developed and built an automatic electronic digital computer for solving large systems of simultaneous linear equations."

Smiley's book is set against the backdrop of the events before during and after WW2 and tells how they affected the individuals mentioned in the book. She not only tells of Atanasoff's life and his accomplishments but also of the many individuals who had a part in the developments of the time and their fates.

Clifford Berry who assisted Atanasoff in building his computer was apparently murdered during the trial and therefore could not testify. The mystery of his death has not been explained. However, it was convenient for those seeking to deny Atanasoff's work.

When the time is ripe for a scientific, mathematical or technological advance some genius will make the breakthrough. There may be more than one as exemplified by Newton and Leibniz who both developed calculus in the seventeenth century..


Howard Aiken also conceived of a digital computer. At Harvard Howard Aiken got less support than Atanasoff did. Atanasoff got a small grant which was enough to build a computer even though his university didn't bother to patent the device. Harvard President Conant discouraged Aiken who was also turned down when he came to mechanical calculating companies with his ideas.

In England at Bletchley Park Alan Turing and Tommy Flowers developed and built Colossus, a computer used during the war to decode encrypted German communications. Turing was a brilliant theoretician whose papers are seminal for the development of artificial intelligence. After the war Turing was prosecuted for his unashamed homosexuality and apparently committed suicide. He had been given the choice of prison or an estrogen treatment. He chose the treatment, and it reduced his body to a shadow of its former self. It is possible that he may have been murdered to silence a security risk. Tommy Flowers had difficulty finding employment in postwar England since government security prevented his telling of his accomplishments in regard to Colossus.

In Germany the amazing Konrad Zuse actually built a computer in his parent's living room. Unlike all the other people mentioned he was unaware of the groundbreaking work of Babbage in the nineteenth century.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. 2
  4. All

This is a review of The Man who Invented the Computer, Jane Smiley (Doubleday, NY, 2010)

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

8 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

David Fisher is an old man fascinated by the ecological implications of language, sex and mathematics.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by David Fisher

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Photo of David Fisher
Article Tools
Comment 8 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy