From one of our most acclaimed novelists, a David-and-Goliath biography for the digital age.
One night in the late 1930s, in a bar on the Illinois–Iowa border, John Vincent Atanasoff, a professor of physics at Iowa State University, after a frustrating day performing tedious mathematical calculations in his lab, hit on the idea that the binary number system and electronic switches, combined with an array of capacitors on a moving drum to serve as memory, could yield a computing machine that would make his life and the lives of other similarly burdened scientists easier. Then he went back and built the machine. It worked. The whole world changed.
Why don’t we know the name of John Atanasoff as well as we know those of Alan Turing and John von Neumann? Because he never patented the device, and because the developers of the far-better-known ENIAC almost certainly stole critical ideas from him. But in 1973 a court declared that the patent on that Sperry Rand device was invalid, opening the intellectual property gates to the computer revolution.
Jane Smiley tells the quintessentially American story of the child of immigrants John Atanasoff with technical clarity and narrative drive, making the race to develop digital computing as gripping as a real-life techno-thriller.
Novelist Smiley explores the story of the now mostly forgotten Atanasoff, a brilliant and engaged physicist and engineer who first dreamed of and built a computational machine that was the prototype for the computer. With her dazzling storytelling, Smiley narrates the tale of a driven young Iowa State University physics professor searching for a way to improve the speed and accuracy of mathematical calculations. In 1936, Atanasoff and his colleague, A.E. Brandt, modified an IBM tabulator which used punched cards to add or subtract values represented by the holes in the cards to get it to perform in a better, faster, and more accurate way. One December evening in 1937, Atanasoff, still struggling to hit upon a formula that would allow a machine to replicate the human brain, drove from Ames, Iowa, to Rock Island, Ill., where, over a bourbon and soda in a roadside tavern, he sketched his ideas for a machine that would become the computer. As with many scientific discoveries or inventions, however, the original genius behind the innovation is often obscured by later, more aggressive, and savvy scientists who covet the honor for themselves. Smiley weaves the stories of other claimants to the computer throne (Turing and von Neumann, among others) into Atanasoff's narrative, throwing into relief his own achievements.