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The man and his machine

Book>> The man who invented the computer • by Jane Smiley • Doubleday • Indian Price Rs 750

By Ananth Nayak
Published: Friday 31 December 2010

imageIn the late 1920s, a student at the University of Iowa wrote a dissertation that led to a breakthrough in calculating devices. The dissertation itself was not any great shakes. It was 10 pages of arcane arithmetic.

But it required John Atanasoff, the student, to perform months of calculations on a heavy metal desk calculator with a hundred typewriter-like keys designed to perform addition or subtraction—multiplication and division were performed through repeated additions or subtractions. The laborious process led Atanasoff to think of making a friendlier calculating device.

In The Man Who Invented The First Computer, Jane Smiley weaves the biography of the inventor with technological history of the times.

As a child, Atanasoff memorised the manual of his father’s Model T Ford and wired his family’s home for electricity. He spoke often about nondecimal ways of counting. By the time he was in graduate school, Atanasoff, the son of Bulgarian immigrants, was known as the mad Russian.

While working on his dissertation, Atanasoff realised that all scientific and engineering progress would be retarded until a breakthrough in methods of calculation. “I did not want to search and invent,” he confessed, “but sadly I turned in that direction.”

By 1938, he had worked out the basic principles of his machine, and it was operational by mid-1940. Smiley notes that Atanasoff envisioned a machine much like the human brain, with regenerative memory. The device became known as the Atanasoff-Berry Computer. In his typical way, Atanasoff insisted his research assistant Clifford Berry share credit.

But Atanasoff barely received any recognition. In the technological pantheon, he was overshadowed by Alan Turing, who laid intellectual groundwork for the computer and cracked the Nazi secret codes during World War II. The Atanasoff-Berry Computer was eclipsed by Eniac, an early computer conceived by US physicist John Mauchly.

Smiley writes that Mauchly was far more ambitious. Unlike Atanasoff, he claimed a patent for his invention. In 1973, a US court validated the Eniac patents, ruling that Mauchly’s invention was based on Atanasoff’s innovations.

Today when computing devices have become relatively low-hanging fruits, it is salutary to note that it would have taken hundreds of Atanasoff-Berry Computers to provide the computing prowess of an Iphone.

Ananth Nayak works for a software firm in Hyderabad


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