The other day at the bookstore I skimmed Jane Smiley's book The Man Who Invented the Computer, about physicist Vincent Atanasoff and the early history of electronic computing. (A replica of Atanasoff's machine, the ABC, is shown above.) Atanasoff was named the inventor of the first automatic electronic digital computer as a result of the 1973 patent suit Honeywell v. Sperry Rand. In that decision, the judge found that "Eckert and Mauchly [creators of the ENIAC] did not themselves first invent the automatic electronic digital computer, but instead derived that subject matter from one Dr. John Vincent Atanasoff". I was already familiar with the Atanasoff story because he taught at Iowa State University, as did my father.
In the book, Smiley also profiles a number of early pioneers of computing who were contemporaries of Atanasoff. Turing and von Neumann are well known, while John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert, the men who built the ENIAC, are not. I was intrigued by the biographical details Smiley uncovered about these men. All of the key figures in the invention of the electronic computer were of exceptional ability -- from that small sliver of humanity that create value, albeit often without capturing the associated financial rewards.
From their respective Wikipedia entries:
Mauchly was born on August 30, 1907 in Cincinnati, Ohio. He grew up in Chevy Chase, Maryland while his father Sebastian Mauchly was a physicist at the Carnegie Institute of Washington, D.C. He earned the Engineering Scholarship of the State of Maryland, which enabled him to enroll at Johns Hopkins University in the fall of 1925 as an undergraduate in the Electrical Engineering program. In 1927 he enrolled directly in a Ph.D. program there and transferred to the graduate physics program of the university. He completed his Ph.D. in 1932 and became a professor of physics at Ursinus College near Philadelphia, where he taught from 1933 to 1941. At Ursinus he worked for several years developing a digital electronic computing machine to test the theory that solar fluctuations, sun spots in particular, affect our weather. ... In 1942 Mauchly wrote a memo proposing the building of a general-purpose electronic computer. The proposal, which circulated within the Moore School (but the significance of which was not immediately recognized), emphasized the enormous speed advantage that could be gained by using digital electronics with no moving parts. ... Mauchly led the conceptual design while Eckert led the hardware engineering on ENIAC.
Eckert initially enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School to study business at the encouragement of his parents, but in 1937 transferred to Penn's Moore School of Electrical Engineering. In 1940, at age 21, Eckert applied for his first patent, "Light Modulating Methods and Apparatus". At the Moore School, Eckert participated in research on radar timing, made improvements to the speed and precision of the Moore School's differential analyzer, and in 1941 became a laboratory assistant for a defense training summer course in electronics offered through the Moore School by the United States Department of War.
Atanasoff: ... At the age of nine he learned to use a slide rule, followed shortly by the study of logarithms, and subsequently completed high school at Mulberry High School in two years. In 1925, Atanasoff received his bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from the University of Florida, graduating with straight A's. He continued his education at Iowa State College and in 1926 earned a master's degree in mathematics. He completed his formal education in 1930 by earning a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the University of Wisconsin–Madison with his thesis, The Dielectric Constant of Helium. [Under van Vleck, who later moved to Harvard and won a Nobel prize.] Upon completion of his doctorate, Atanasoff accepted an assistant professorship at Iowa State College in mathematics and physics.
For those interested in the credit dispute between Atanasoff and Mauchly-Eckert, the following is from the Atanasoff Wikipedia entry. Mauchly apparently knew all about Atanasoff's device before circulating his proposal in 1942. In Mauchly's favor, his was a general purpose (Turing complete) device, whereas Atanasoff's ABC was a special purpose device for solving systems of linear equations.
Atanasoff first met Mauchly at the December 1940 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Philadelphia, where Mauchly was demonstrating his "harmonic analyzer", an analog calculator for analysis of weather data. Atanasoff told Mauchly about his new digital device and invited him to see it. ...
In June 1941 Mauchly visited Atanasoff in Ames, Iowa for four days, staying as his houseguest. Atanasoff and Mauchly discussed the prototype ABC, examined it, and reviewed Atanasoff's design manuscript.