Today, we look for the first modern digital
computer. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
The Sperry-Rand Corporation
sued Honeywell in 1967. Honeywell was making
digital computers, and Sperry claimed Honeywell
owed them a royalty. After WW-II, Sperry had bought
the patent rights to ENIAC, the first digital
electronic computer. Honeywell came back at Sperry
with a countersuit. They made the extraordinary
claim that Sperry's patent was invalid -- that the
digital computer had already been invented before
Honeywell won its case six years later, and Allan
Mackintosh tells us that they did it by correcting
history. They found their way back to the winter of
1937. A young physics instructor at Iowa State
Atanasoff was struggling with the problem of
mechanizing computation. Things were going badly
this particular evening. Finally, in frustration,
he jumped into his car and sped off into the night.
Two hundred miles later, he pulled up at a
roadhouse in Illinois for something to drink.
And there it came to him. A machine could easily
manipulate simple on-off electrical pulses. If
computations were done in the "either-or" number
base of 2 -- instead of base 10 -- a machine could
do calculations naturally. Sitting in that road
house, 200 miles from home, he made the crucial
step in inventing the digital computer.
Two years later Atanasoff and a colleague named
Berry started to build a computer. But in 1942 they
were drafted, and the almost-complete computer was
set aside without being patented. Meanwhile, the
government started work on the ENIAC digital
computer. ENIAC differed in some ways, and it was
Besides, an unfinished, unpatented machine doesn't
make a very strong claim in a priority dispute. But
there's a catch here. One of the major inventors of
ENIAC -- John Mauchly -- had known Atanasoff.
They'd corresponded. Mauchly had even visited
Atanasoff in Iowa for a week in 1941. In the end,
it was clear that the ideas that made ENIAC had
come from Atanasoff.
Atanasoff did all his work with only $6000 of grant
money. But the military funded the ENIAC project.
They wanted to make artillery firing tables, and
they put a half-million dollars into ENIAC -- a
huge sum in 1942.
So the next time you use your pocket calculator --
the next time you spend 30 seconds doing what would
have taken all afternoon -- think about a man
clearing his mind one winter night in 1937. Think
about a man gazing at a yellow line for five hours,
until he was suddenly able to see through the dark.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds