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People, Machines, and Politics of the Cyber Age Creation | 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

ENIAC/UNIVAC tourism

Where to learn more


People, Machines, and Politics of the Cyber Age Creation

Dr. Rocco Martino has written a new book which provides rich new insight into the birth of the Cyber Age, sovaldi as he likes to call it.  It includes chapters on the ENIAC and the the Sperry-Honeywell trial.  This is the introduction to the book, order written by Bill Mauchly.

My father, viagra Dr. John W. Mauchly, with his partner J. Presper Eckert, invented ENIAC. It was the first electronic computer.  There, I said it, and it is the truth.  They not only designed that computer but a few more, an EDVAC and a BINAC and a UNIVAC, and in them developed the blueprint for all computers today.  But you would be amazed to learn, if you don’t know, how controversial my father’s role is.  He has been accused of fraud and stealing secret ideas, he was blacklisted from his own company and was even suspected of murder.  After his death in 1980, books have been published painting him as an unscrupulous villain who sponged off the intellect around him.   And yet at the same time the computer history community acknowledges that he is the one who started the computer revolution, and he is the one who has been robbed of the credit he deserves.  What is going on here?  What went on 60 years ago that still causes so much confusion, disagreement and animosity?

This is a book concerning history, but it is not a history book.  Dr. Rocco Martino is both an acute observer and a player in the story of the computer revolution.  At the heart of the matter, in Chapter 7 he presents a bold new analysis of the ENIAC patent trial, the travesty of justice that started the bizarre controversy over my father.  Dr. Martino knew him well and they founded a company together.  He has given us a rare inside view of Mauchly, and other pioneers of the digital revolution, and vividly recounts their personalities as well as their accomplishments.   Those accounts are woven into a bigger picture of the entire span of computer evolution, from the first and only computer to a world with too many billions of computers to be counted.  Finally the history is put in the context of today’s world.  The volume is further infused with Dr. Martino’s views and convictions on the need for innovation in the global marketplace.

My mother Kathleen McNulty Mauchly had also been in computers; she was one of the ENIAC programmers.  That in itself is a fascinating story that I will not attempt here.   My father and mother were terrific parents, loved by all their children.  But we weren’t the only ones who thought they were great.  There were seven of us kids, and we each seemed to have seven friends who thought our house was the best place to be because our parents made them feel welcome and so many interesting things were going on.  And then there were the various computer professionals or luminaries that would come to visit.  We would all gather around a big dinner table every night and the conversation could easily go from Abacus to Zeus in one evening.  Mom and Dad were generous with their gifts, and people felt that.

One evening Rocco Martino came to dinner.  He had been a friend of Dad’s from their first meeting at Sperry Rand a few years earlier, in the 1950’s.   We all liked him immediately; he was friendly and animated and enjoyed talking to us kids.  Dad had a great rapport with him.  We all called him Rocky.

Those were exciting times for Dad; he and Rocky were starting a new venture to use computer software to do project scheduling.  Dad was breaking away from Remington Rand, who didn’t share his view that computer companies needed to be deeply involved in software as well as hardware.

So finally he was his own boss again.  More importantly to him, I think, was that he had his own computer.  The new company bought an IBM 1620 computer (yes, IBM had been his competitor until now, but already they were pulling ahead of Sperry Rand).  The company used the computer by day, but Dad used it at night.  It was his first of many “personal” computers.  Sometimes he would bring my sisters and me to the office in the evening.  We got to be very comfortable around computers and learned to use the key punch to enter data onto punch cards.  I remember listening in as Dad was trying to teach assembly language to my older sister.   The best part was playing Blackjack against the IBM mainframe.  It was 1960.

Rocky co-founded the new company and coined the name: Mauchly Associates.  He was the Executive Vice President and also in charge of the Canadian operations.  Though I would like to say that they were friends for life, that was not the case.  They worked together for a few years but there was a falling out over business issues.  Rocky went his own way, which turned out to be a very successful way, much more so than Dad’s.  Rocky started a new company, called XRT, just as digital money transfer was starting to explode.  But throughout his illustrious career in computer security and digital banking, Rocky kept his admiration for the man who not only had given him his start, but had really given the entire computer industry its start.  And he watched with concern as the rather strange results of a patent trial triggered a series of attacks on John Mauchly’s reputation.

In 1971 Honeywell sued Sperry Rand claiming that the patent on the ENIAC was invalid.  The verdict shocked many people.   In short, the trial said that Mauchly took the idea for the electronic computer from a John Atanasoff.   This was clearly false to those who understood the technology, but it seemed that that judge did not.  In this book Dr. Rocco Martino gives a detailed rebuttal to the verdict.  He shows in several different ways that the trial was a travesty.   He shows how an unprepared and overly confident defense team lost a case they could easily have won.  It is important that this argument be made, for history is being slowly twisted by those who take the judge’s statements at face value.

The trial’s outcome was a big blow to my father.  Even though many patents come and go, and patents are rarely important in the real history of technology, this one had an extra sting.  None of it was economic; my father had no monetary gain or loss from the outcome—the patent belonged to a corporation.  But it started a legend, really: the legend of Atanasoff and Mauchly.  Judge Larson ruled that Atanasoff was the true inventor of the automatic digital computer.

The city of Ames, Iowa, where Atanasoff had made the machine, was pleasantly surprised to find that something famous had been invented there.  They commissioned a book about Atanasoff, newly crowned father of the computer.  The author, Mollenhoff, decided to turn it into a good guy–bad guy story, and Mauchly was the bad guy.  Even though the trial judge said he found no evidence of wrongful intent, Mollenhoff found lots of it.  He had at his disposal the trial transcript with hours of testimony from all the parties.  The book told the tale of the poor forgotten Atanasoff, brilliant and yet somehow naive, unjustly deprived of glory by the untalented but devious thief Mauchly.  The author seemed to think that the story was more heroic if Mauchly was cast as an antagonist.   It was filled with quotations taken out of context, surrounded by conjecture, used to “prove” downright lies about Mauchly.  The book was soundly criticized by academics in computer history, but it was out there, and people read it, and some believed it.

Mollenhoff’s book was followed by another, by Alice and Arthur Burks.  Arthur Burks, as Mauchly told in a deposition for the trial, had wanted to get his name on the ENIAC patent.  He had threatened revenge, and now he seemed to be exacting it.  Their book tries to show how ideas in ENIAC came from Atanasoff.  It is a textbook example of deceit by technical obfuscation.  Alice Burks followed with a second book peppered with select phrases of testimony from the trial, colored in such a way as to “prove” Mauchly’s guilt and deliberate bad intentions.  Most recently, Jane Smiley released a biography of Atanasoff that retells Mollenhoff’s distorted story, morphing the real people she writes about into fictionalized caricatures.

All of these books take the same slant in depicting Mauchly as a villain.  This lingering problem pained John Mauchly until his death.   It saddened us to see Dad get battered by the ugly repercussions of the patent case.  He was never one to brag, and I rarely heard him talk about his many accomplishments.  So it was very difficult for him to have some people claim he stole his way through life.  People would wonder “Why didn’t you appeal the case?”—but it was not his case to appeal.  It was between two corporations.   He was a casualty.

Dad passed away in 1980 at 72.  My mother took up the cause of defending his name and setting the record straight.  She learned public speaking and wrote an article for the Annals of the History of Computing.  All my life, really, I have been hearing  the history and the stories that revolve around the early development of computers, firsthand.  It is unjust that Dad had to suffer the slings and arrows that were aimed at him.

Today I often find myself needing to untangle the mass of misinformation that has been heaped on my father and the ENIAC.   When I get on my soapbox, I find it helpful to separate out three ideas that are usually lumped together.

1.       Who invented the computer?  For a meaningful answer, one must define “computer.”  The term computer can be very general and has been applied to many machines and even people.  The usual approach is to narrow the field down with features that are closer to a modern computer.   First programmable computer?  (Babbage?  Zuse?)  First electronic computer (Atanasoff? Colossus?)  First programmable AND electronic (ENIAC).  Today the popular meaning of computer is “a general-purpose electronic machine that runs programs and manipulates digital data.”  With such a definition, none of those older machines qualify.  ENIAC was the first.

2.       Did John Mauchly steal ideas from Atanasoff?  A great many words have been spent showing that he easily could have; he had the opportunity.  But opportunity is not evidence of theft.  What is “the idea” that was stolen?  I’ve read all the books and I still can’t find one idea or component unique to the ABC that was used in ENIAC.  The two machines are as different as a bicycle and a jet plane.

3.       Was the ENIAC patent invalid?  Probably, in my opinion; it was filed too late, and then amended much later.  These were procedural mistakes that are now hard to argue, and they were reasons why Sperry did not bother to appeal the case.  But are the actual claims of the ENIAC patent novel compared to prior art? Definitely.

In this book, Dr. Martino presents a new point, a fourth point that has never been raised and is crucial to understanding the trial.  Was the judge acting according to the legal precedents that have been set for patents and intellectual property?   He carefully deconstructs the trial using extensive references to settled rulings.  It becomes crystal clear that the judge’s decision was not based on patent law.

There are so many, too many ways to describe how profoundly the computer revolution has changed the world.  Do we care who really made it happen, or how they did it, or how those ideas grew and evolved and propelled us into tomorrow?  Dr. Martino makes a strong case for the importance of innovation.  Creativity cannot be mandated; invention does not happen on a schedule.  An idea is just the smallest seed.  It must find a place to grow; it must have an environment that supports it.  It needs the “99% perspiration,” the work to turn it into reality.  It needs special people, people that are actually on the front lines, the first ones to face the really difficult problems, the innovators.  As the saying goes, you can tell the pioneers by the arrows in their backs.  At least that held true for John Mauchly.

It gives me great pleasure to introduce this important work.  Dr. Martino has condensed a lifetime of adventure in technology to bring new insight and a promising outlook for our rapidly changing cyber world.

Bill Mauchly

Berwyn PA

Dec. 3, 2010

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