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2011 April 4 - 12:00 am

TECHNOLOGY TODAY: Who Invented the Computer? It Depends on Who You Ask

The recent death at age 86 of Jean Bartik, last of the original ENIAC programmers, shines light once again on the thorny but fascinating question of who invented the computer.

What defines our times more than computers? That’s a debate in itself, but you would think that the inventor of the computer would be as historical a figure as the inventor of the light bulb, Thomas Edison, or the discover of electricity, Benjamin Franklin.

But history is never this simple, with Edison much more accurately characterized as the light bulb’s popularizer and Franklin as the inventor of the lightning rod. Things, as you might expect, get even more complicated with computers.

Much here depends on how you define “computer.” Does it need to be programmable, carrying out computations automatically? If not, the earliest computer might be the abacus, which was used first around 2700 BC in Mesopotamia, several centuries after the first civilizations arose there and in Egypt.

The earliest programmable computer, which carried out addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division without human intervention, was arguably a mechanical calculator invented during the late Renaissance in 1642 by the Frenchman Blaise Pascal, sometimes called Pascal’s Calculator.

Both of these devices, however, were analog, meaning they represented values continuously, such as moving a central strip along a slide rule. Computers today for the most part are digital, meaning they represent values incrementally, typically as either a zero or a one. This simplicity, ironically, allows for far greater range and speed.

It’s digital computers, which at their essence just add zeros and ones very, very quickly, that put man on the Moon, that sit on desktops and laptops, and that power devices ranging from talking dolls and smartphones to industrial robots and CT scanners.

Many regard the first general-purpose digital computer to be the ENIAC, an acronym for Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer. Like the Internet that came after it, the ENIAC was designed initially for military purposes, in its case to calculate the ideal trajectories for artillery and mortars to maximize the chances of hitting their target.

Design and construction of the ENIAC was secretly begun during World War II in 1943 at the University of Pennsylvania, financed by the U.S. Army. It played no part, alas, in the Allies’ victory, since the first machine was completed in 1946. But the press at the time heralded it as a “Giant Brain” since it boasted speeds a thousand times faster than previous analog computers.

The leaders of the team developing the ENIAC were Penn’s John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert. Jean Bartik was one of those who helped develop the first programs. The ENIAC and its improved versions were purchased four years later, in 1950, by Remington Rand and became UNIVAC, with its descendents in turn made and marketed by Unisys of Blue Bell, Pa.

Not all, however, regard Mauchly and Eckert as inventors of the modern computer. Last year, in an interesting book titled “The Man Who Invented the Computer: The Biography of John Atanasoff, Digital Pioneer,” published by Doubleday, author Jane Smiley argues that this honor rightfully belongs to another braniac, Iowa State College professor John Atanasoff, who built an earlier computer with the assistance of graduate student Clifford Berry.

Though the machine, completed in 1942 and dubbed the Atanasoff–Berry Computer, was digital, it wasn’t programmable. It was only able to solve systems of linear equations.

The ENIAC was nearly universally regarded as the first modern computer until Atanasoff and Berry’s work was rediscovered in the 1960s. Eventually, in 1973, a U.S. District Court concluded, in short, that the ENIAC was derived from the earlier Atanasoff–Berry Computer.

In her book, Smiley agreed with the conclusions of Alice Burks in her earlier 2003 book “Who Invented the Computer?”, who also felt that Atanasoff deserved the lion’s share of the credit. Far from the corridors of East Coast power in Ames, Iowa, Atanasoff received little notice except from Mauchly, who borrowed from his work and, to be fair, greatly advanced it.

Not everybody, therefore, feels that the ENIAC doesn’t deserve to be called the first modern computer, despite the court ruling. And the thinking of others during this period played an important part in the development of today’s computers, perhaps most notable Alan Turing, who from his work in the 1930s is widely regarded as the father of modern computer science.

So next time you think of a four- or five-year old personal computer running Windows XP as ancient, consider its predecessors.

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@comcast.net or www.reidgoldsborough.com.

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