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Smiley Smackdown: “Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy.” | ENIAC - The first general-purpose electronic computer
This web site is devoted to ENIAC — “Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer”. ENIAC was the first general-purpose electronic computer. It was made at the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Electrical Engineering during World War II under the code name "Project PX". Physics professor John W. Mauchly and electrical engineer J. Presper Eckert led the team. Both were civilian employees whose computer work was funded by the United States Army Ballistics Research Laboratory. This is a collection of the best online information about the ENIAC and the people that created it. (The information is divided into these categories - Select a link or scroll down to read the blog.)

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Smiley Smackdown: “Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy.”

Excuse me (Bill Mauchly) for being thrilled see Peter Eckstein totally demolish Jane Smiley’s The Man Who Invented the Computer: The Biography of John Atanasoff, ed Digital Pioneer in the Columbia Journalism Review.  See the review and comments here.

The review of the book by Lauren Kirchner first appeared online Nov 24, 2010.  The entire trail of comments is very entertaining in itself.   Gini Calcerano dove in to criticize the book.  Then in a surprise visit by Jane Smiley herself, the author tries to throw the fight in a different direction by accusing a Gini Calcerano of hiding the fact that she was actually a Mauchly, and even better, a “Mauchlyite.”  Yea, the Mauchlyites were awakened and hit back with renewed force.  As Rick Moranis says in Ghostbusters: “Many Shuvs and Zuuls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Slor that day, I can tell you!”

Today Peter Eckstein, author and historian, added a highly detailed criticism of Smiley’s factual errors and extreme bias.  Here is his post in its entirety:


I am not related to anyone in this controversy, and I never met Mauchly.  I did interview Eckert (and others) extensively and published a long article on his early life in IEEE Annals of the History of Computing. My only strong bias is a belief that history should be depicted as accurately as possible.  I have read all parts of the Smiley book concerning American computer developments and found them to be superficially researched, riddled with factual errors, and totally biased—nothing short of a publishing scandal.

Smiley’s thesis is entirely borrowed from previous writers on one side of the issue.  It is that Atanasoff, a brilliant scientist at Iowa State (where Smiley taught for more than a decade), invented “the computer,” later called the ABC.  Then his ideas were stolen by Mauchly (“a space case”) who shared them with Eckert at Penn. Eckert merely “followed through,” making sure that Mauchly’s designs “were properly executed” during World War II in developing the ENIAC computer for the Army. By contrast, many serious computer historians argue that Eckert, who worked closely with Mauchly and others, should be seen as the master engineer of the computer age.

The portions of Smiley’s work dealing with the American developments rely overwhelmingly on just three second- or third-hand book treatments and an interview with a filmmaker. She directly quotes no documents and offers only one quote from any of the dozens of relevant oral histories—and this one derives from a secondary source. (The only portions of her book that add anything to the record are the oral and written contributions by computer scientist Gustafson.)

No wonder, then, that Smiley’s limited research produces well over a dozen factual errors. For example, the two ENIAC leaders met while Eckert was a lab assistant in a prewar crash course in electronics in which physicist Mauchly was a student.  Smiley, however, treats them as “lab partners” in a course “in computing theory”—a subject which essentially did not exist in 1941. She says Eckert only had a bachelor’s degree by age 27, when he actually had a master’s by age 24. She incorrectly states that Mauchly “had run the UNIVAC division until 1959”, when he only ran an applications center within it.  She twice cites a statement about the two men’s characteristics, once attributing it to Mauchly’s widow and once to Eckert’s. There are many, many more such errors, along with some frightfully biased innuendos and interpretations. Feel free to ask me for a list.

Over three decades Annals has published dozens of relevant articles.  Smiley cites only two—and only one directly. If she had bothered to look, she would have found, for example, two articles by Calvin Mooers.  He was a top assistant to Atanasoff when, shortly after the war, the Navy gave him the responsibility and resources to develop a new, post-ENIAC computer. Mauchly was a part-time consultant, and the working engineers welcomed his “advanced technological ideas,” especially since they were “not getting intellectual support” or “leadership of any credible sort” from Atanasoff.  When pressed for a decision, he would invariably go off on long digression on topics like the health benefits of goats’ milk.  After a year the Navy gave up on the project, which contributed nothing. Smiley shows no awareness that such evidence even exists.  Indeed, she alleges that Atanasoff, “because of his energy, organizational skills, and persistence,” had a long life of “mastering everything he tried.”

Atanasoff was undoubtedly an ingenious man, and this is reflected in his design of the ABC. However, when Smiley adopts for her title “The Man Who Invented the Computer,” it must be difficult for her to allow for any nuance or embarrassing contradictions to this story. This is a book that should never have been commissioned (by the Sloan Foundation), written (by novelist Smiley) or published (by Doubleday). Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy.

Peter Eckstein

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