The Man Who Invented the Computer by Jane Smiley

Smiley casts a spotlight on John Atanasoff, a little-known physics professor at Iowa State who devised the world’s first digital computer.

(Doubleday, 256 pages, $25.95)

Novelist Jane Smiley has her own ideas about which invention ranks as the most important of the 20th century, said Michael Rosenwald in Bloomberg BusinessWeek. In this “graceful” new work of nonfiction, the Pulitzer Prize winner casts a spotlight on a little-known physics professor who in 1937 devised the world’s first digital computer. Iowa State’s John Atanasoff was 34 when the breakthrough occurred: He had stopped at a roadside bar for a bourbon when, “with the crispness of a Frank Capra scene,” a solution to the problem he’d been mulling suddenly presented itself. The plan he sketched on a cocktail napkin became, three years later, a 6-by-3-foot prototype sitting in a basement at his university. And it easily outperformed every existing device in solving complex mathematical equations.

“Iowa State didn’t really grasp what Atanasoff had wrought,” said Jim Higgins in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. His ideas were too complex for many even in academia to appreciate, which in part explains why the Atanasoff-Berry Computer, or ABC, never took its place in the public imagination alongside the Wright brothers’ iconic Kitty Hawk plane. In addition, contemporaries who were working on similar devices “adopted or stole some of Atanasoff’s work, then tried to diminish his role in the creation of the machine.”

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Smiley’s wide-ranging book offers “a complex look at how ideas are born and grow,” said Jory John in the San Francisco Chronicle. Other innovators of the time, including the American engineer John Mauchly, England’s Alan Turing, and Germany’s Konrad Zuse, were also toying with ideas for a computer, and it’s Mauchly “who serves as the story’s villain.” Atanasoff’s willingness to share his ideas with Mauchly led to a lengthy patent battle, which Atanasoff eventually won, in 1978. Because Atanasoff’s court victory freed his ideas to be used by a new generation of inventors, it triggered the personal-computer revolution. By then, Atanasoff had become a mere footnote in history. Thanks to Smiley, that could change.

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