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The ENIAC patent trial | 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

The controversial ENIAC patent trial

Joseph Chapline in 1948 at Eckert Mauchly Computer Corporation

Joseph Chapline died last month (Aug 2011) at the ripe age of 91. He was charming and brilliant character.  I would get to talk to him when he visited my parents in the 1970’s.   I was delighted by his funny stories and his vast knowledge of pipe organs and a thousand other subjects.  (In particular he knew more about musical tuning and scales than anyone I had ever met.)  Joe loved to talk and had a gift for words.   He was one of those guests who would still be standing at the front door after a half hour of trying to leave.   And you liked it.  He was famous for his anecdotes.

Joe Chapline has a special place in computer history.  Joe made an introduction that led to something big.   He is the one who said to Herman Goldstine “You should talk to John Mauchly.”  Goldstine, of course, was desperate to find a way to speed computations, even if it cost money.  Mauchly was desperate to find a way to move forward in building a high-speed electronic computing machine.  A match made in heaven - well, actually, made in the basement of the Moore School, where Joe Chapline worked keeping the Differential Analyzer running.

Besides that piece of serendipity, Joe was a pioneer in his own right.   Eckert and Mauchly plucked him away from the Moore School and made him the technical writer for their new company.  One of Joe's stories is about how the writing of the BINAC manual came to him in a flash - fully formed.   The story is recounted in this tribute to his work from the IEEE:   Joseph D. Chapline: Technical Communication's Mozart.

Here's one of Joe's stories, told at the dedication of EMCC building on Ridge Ave.

"When I worked for Eckert, I wrote his scientific papers that he later delivered typically to the Institute of Radio Engineers (IRE), later renamed the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE). One such paper was on some aspect of memory systems. He told me one October that he was to give the paper the next March in New York. My habit was to write a draft reasonably promptly after he first mentioned the paper. In this instance I prepared a text and left it in his office. He passed me in the hallway at one point and said he would like to the talk over what I had written. Being procrastinators--both of us, we passed each other many times with good intentions of getting together. But that meeting didn't occur until Sunday night before his trip toNew York with the delivery on Monday morning. So we met at the lab about 8 PM Sunday night. He picked this one part he didn't like and explained it to me again. I went and rewrote and handed him the new copy. He was unsatisfied, so we repeated the process several more times. It got to be 4 AM and Pres felt he should start for New York. As he left he thanked for all my patience and effort, and then asked, "You know why we had so much trouble, don't you?" I said no, why? "Well," said Eckert, "I didn't know how the damned thing worked myself, but I was hoping I could get you to write something that would sound as if I did."
We all like web sites, sildenafil but did you know there are real-life sites where you can learn about ENIAC and its history?

See part of the actual ENIAC at the University of Pennsylvania's Moore School, 200 South 33rd St., Philadelphia, PA, 19104.

Visit the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Company factory marker at 3747 Ridge Ave., Philadelphia, PA, 19132.

See part of a UNIVAC and learn about the ENIAC founders' motivation at the InfoAge Science Center, 2201 Marconi Rd., Wall, N.J., 07719.
IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, sickness Vol. 18, No. 1, 1996
By the mid-1960s, pharmacy long after ENIAC's obsolescence, discount Sperry Rand was just beginning to receive royalties from the computer patent which was not granted until 1964. The company negotiated a cross-licensing deal with its largest competitor, viagra IBM, but could not reach agreements with smaller competitors such as Honeywell. This led to Sperry Rand and Honeywell suing each other in May 1967. Sperry Rand alleged that Honeywell engaged in patent infringement. Honeywell alleged that Sperry Rand had an illegal monopoly and that the ENIAC patent was unenforceable because of prior art in Atanasoff's device.  A trial led by U.S. District Court Judge Earl Larson convened from June 1971 to March 1972 in Minneapolis, which was Honeywell's home turf.

Honeywell's attorneys presented the Atanasoff device and Mauchly's correspondence with Atanasoff as evidence that ENIAC technology concepts were based on Atanasoff ideas. They also argued that the ENIAC patent was filed too late (1947) because the computer was delivered to the Army two years prior. Judge Larson agreed and ruled the  patent unenforceable, although he added that Honeywell would be infringing if Sperry Rand were to win on appeal.

Historians are divided on whether Larson's decisions were good for the American computer industry. One perspective is that all companies now were free to make and sell computers without fearing the ENIAC patent, while Sperry Rand could also compete without fearing government antitrust hearings.

But was Judge Larson correct when he decided that the ENIAC patent illegally borrowed from the Atanasoff device (ABC)? And if not, then why didn't Sperry Rand appeal on that point?

Honeywell attorneys argued that the ABC beat ENIAC to several important concepts such as using vacuum tubes and separating the processing from the memory. They also showed how Mauchly had visited Atanasoff prior to building ENIAC. Their "smoking gun" was a letter in which Mauchly asked Atanasoff's approval for building a similar device.

Honeywell's arguments remain problematic to computer historians even today.  The ABC contained technological innovations, and Mauchly did learn about it directly from Atanasoff before building ENIAC, but ENIAC as it actually existed was unlike the ABC in many vital aspects:

  • ABC was never finished; ENIAC served for many years
  • ABC used vacuum tubes for logic; ENIAC used counters
  • ABC contained mechanical parts; ENIAC was all-electronic
  • ABC needed human intervention; ENIAC was automatic
  • ABC was not programmable; ENIAC was programmable

Therefore it's clear that despite Atanasoff's developments and Mauchly's letters, the ENIAC was not derived from the ABC. (In fact, it's well-documented that Atanasoff himself borrowed ideas from Babbage and from military devices, and that Mauchly had independent ideas and studied a wide range of calculating and computing devices before visiting Atanasoff.)

There is also documentation showing that Mauchly and Eckert only made narrow claims in their patent application, but that Remington Rand and later Sperry Rand independently expanded the claims to be overly broad.  Some historians believe this influenced Larson's decision to declare the final patent unenforceable.  Larson also agreed with Honeywell's argument that the ENIAC patent was filed too late to be valid.

If Sperry Rand had appealed, the company could have earned billions in royalties, as the patent would have been valid for 17 years from 1964 -- all the way to 1981, when microcomputers were already taking over the industry.

Instead, unwilling to fund the appeal and unable to predict the future, Sperry walked away. This was based on Larson's decision, including the decision that only IBM, not Sperry, successfully created a monopoly.  In the latter sense, Sperry Rand got a break on what could have been a lethal charge to its very existence.

Despite the legal nuances, history and technology exist distinctly from courtrooms. The facts show that Atanasoff did not make a working electronic computer, Mauchly and Eckert did, and it was dissimilar to the ABC.


ENIAC Patent Trial Collection (University of Pennsylvania) - Overview of the entire case with links to many legal documents

U.S. Patent #3,120,606 - requires browser plugin (USPTO) - Read the patent here.  It is also available here, without a plugin, with ads.

ENIAC File Wrapper (IEEE Technology and Society) - The ENIAC patent application is examined here

The ENIAC Patent (IEEE Annals of the History of Computing) - Article by an IBM patent lawyer about the long path the patent took between 1946 and 1973.  The article is also available for free here.

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