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Philly vs. Iowa for the Soul of the Computer | 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.)

History and technology

People and stories

Was it the first computer?

UNIVAC and beyond

The ENIAC patent trial

Myths about ENIAC

ENIACtion on Facebook


Where to learn more

Philly vs. Iowa for the Soul of the Computer

Calculating a Consensus

Published: December 17, discount 2010 The New York Times

Related:    Sunday Book Review: ‘The Man Who Invented the Computer’ by Jane Smiley (November 28, cure 2010)

To the Editor:

Kathryn Schulz’s review of “The Man Who Invented the Computer,” by Jane Smiley, fails to address a basic issue: Is the book true, or at least consistent with the consensus about the development of the computer (“Binary Breakthrough,” Nov. 28)? Contrary to Smiley’s claims, most historians believe that if anyone deserves credit for the invention of the general-purpose electronic computer, it should go to J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly, who developed the Eniac. Of course, there are many difficult issues over what it means to “invent” any complex technology. But a review of a work of historical biography should at least inform readers that the book challenges a general scholarly consensus, and evaluate whether the book is adequately based on research and facts.

Kalamazoo, Mich.

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, sovaldi sale 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, ambulance 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

In the just-released February 2011 issue, here Philadelphia Magazine sends a wake-up call to the town: Don't stand there and let Iowa get all the glory!  It explains that Smiley's book is trying to give Atanasoff all the credit for the idea of the electronic computer and Philly is, well, oblivious.

Read the whole article here:  PHILLY MAG

An excerpt:

"But a growing group of Iowans, perhaps miffed that their state is best known for a not particularly nutritious vegetable, would have you believe that it was their Midwestern home that begat this world-changing technology. In October, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and former Iowa State University professor Jane Smiley published The Man Who Invented the Computer. In it, she vilifies Mauchly and argues that he stole the intellectual property of ISU physicist John Atanasoff, who had developed a computing device of his own, the Atanasoff-Berry Computer, in the late ’30s.

"But more alarming than Iowa’s attempt to claim our history is the lack of defense from the city and Penn. Thus far, our civic leaders’ collective response has been, well, nil — and indeed, our city seems perfectly content to let this momentous, revolutionary accomplishment go largely uncelebrated. To wit: While a few pieces of ENIAC sit in some room at Penn, the remainder of surviving pieces lay in some storage room.


"Think about it: Say something nasty about the Eagles, and you’ll get an earful from Ed Rendell. Declare New York City our superior in some minor respect, and watch the furor unfold. But the genesis of the computer? Eh, go ahead and take it."

Many thanks to Victor Fiorillo for the article and the great suggestion:

Make Feb. 14 ENIAC Day!

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3 Responses to “Philly vs. Iowa for the Soul of the Computer”

  1. Bill Says:

    Hmmm… Jean Bartik says it was actually Feb. 15 when the ENIAC made it’s big debut. The 14th is written most places, even Wikipedia, and they’re always right, right?

  2. Eva Mauchly Says:

    Mom always said the 14th.

  3. Gini M Calcerano Says:

    Well, Betty was busy working on the programming on the 14th, so she didn’t get to celebrate until the big Dedication on the 15th. Meanwhile, I guess Mom was already partying!

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