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Senior Vice-President for Research and Innovation, Professor of Theoretical Physics, Michigan State University

Friday, July 08, 2011


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".[2] 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.


LondonYoung said...

This sorta reminds me of the invention of the airplane.  Given preceding developments, others are just gonna follow and it kinda doesn't matter too much who gets their flag into the ground first.  What did these guys really contribute that the next guy wouldn't have a year or two later?  Are they really "creators", or just actors in the human drama?  Find me the guy behind the horseshoe ...

steve hsu said...

What Turing and vN did was creative (theoretical notion of Turing Machine) or difficult (laying out the general theory/architecture of a vN machine in a very elegant way) enough that if they hadn't done it there would have been some lag. No more than 5-10 years probably, but still substantial as these things go.

With A, M-E it is already clear from how entangled their efforts were that others could have done the same thing at almost the same time. But the other people who might have done it would have had very similar biographies and cognitive profiles -- still drawn from a tiny subset of the human population. It's that *category* of people that I refer to as Creators, or potential Creators.

Mariano Chouza said...

Computing history has the perfect example of "being ahead of your time": Babbage's Analytical Engine. Far from being appreciated, his contributions fell into obscurity and were rediscovered during the 30s and 40s.

steve hsu said...

As always, the theoretical ideas and the necessary technology have to be in synch in order to have real impact.

5371 said...

Value is money, not a real thing. Nor can it be short for everything worthwhile. How much value did Ramanujan create?

Matt Simpson said...

Interestingly, the first supercomputer was built on a farm by 34 guys with one PhD among them.

From "The Supermen: The Story of Seymour Cray and the Technical Wizards Behind the Supercomputer" by Charles J. Murray:

"Word of the team's success buzzed through the computer industry with extraordinary speed.  Within days the Business Week article found its way to the highest office in IBM, prompting a scathing memo from company president Thomas Watson:

"Last week Control Data had a press conference during which they officially announced their 6600 system.  I understand that in the laboratory developing this system there are only 34 people, including the janitor.  Of these 14 are engineers and 4 are programmers, and only one person has a Ph.D., a relatively junior programmer.  Contrasting this modest effort with our own vast development activities, I fail to understand why we have lost our industry leadership position by letting someone else offer the world's most powerful computer.""

Michael Tocci said...

Thanks for the tip on the book.

MtMoru said...

That these people are so much less celebrated than entertainers and athletes is an inefficency of the free market --- where promotion can substitute for genuine value.

Jirka Lahvicka said...

Was it really a computer if it was not programmable (according to Wikipedia)? What about Konrad Zuse, who is usually considered to be the first to build a functional Turing-complete computer?

LondonYoung said...

I suppose I have to agree with both of those points.  I agree there exists a reservoir of minds among the human population who, as a group, will be the ones to push forward our technology - your creators.
My thoughts had ventured off into those "Thomas Kuhn paradigm" breakers - an even more elite subset ...

steve hsu said...

Zuse also appears in Smiley's book although I left him out of my post because he wasn't involved in the US patent dispute. I think Zuse's machine is Turing-complete on a technicality. The original use of the word "computer" was simply something that computes, so it didn't have to be programmable.

BTW, warning to readers: Smiley's book is good for its portrayal of the people involved. It's not so great on technical details.

steve hsu said...

Turing was definitely in the paradigm-shifter category... the others perhaps not so much. vN was, of course, probably the smartest guy of that era.

NicolasBourbaki said...

Here's an interesting tidbit. One of the creators of the ENIAC was a professional philosopher (Arthur Burks). This isn't a surprise as the logical structure of computing is founded on developments in logic, a branch of philosophy. 


Despite what some supposedly educated people here seem think, this is just one of many examples of the massive impact philosophers have had in modern society. 

MtMoru said...

"vN was, of course..."

Did he purify penicillin or develop any vaccines? No. Were those who did lesss intelligent? By Steve's lights yes.

Yan Shen said...

Hilary Putnam made outside contributions to both mathematics and computer science.

NicolasBourbaki said...

true, Putnam is credited (with other logicians) finding the solution to Hilbert's tenth problem (more specifically, proving that it is unsolvable) and with original developments in theoretical computer science. But Putnam was one of many philosophers who have contributed immensely to all facets of society from law, public policy, political theory, economics, and technology.

MtMoru said...

"Putnam is credited (with other logicians) with finding the solution to Hilbert's tenth problem (more specifically, proving that it is unsolvable) and made original developments in theoretical computer science."
1. He did not do these qua philosopher AND like almost all highly regarded analytic "philosophers" he studied mathematics as an undergraduate just like yours truly. Hmmm. (Maybe philosophy departments should be folded into departments of maths or linguistics. MIT has already done the latter.)
2. Putnam's "contribution" to CS sounds kind of lame.
"contributed immensely to all facets of society from law, public policy, political theory, economics"
As if it were possible to contribute at all, let alone immensely, to society through these. "One of many philosophers who ... contributed to ... technology?" There's that one guy you mentioned, and Wittgenstein designed a gyro something. Any others?

MtMoru said...

P.S. How many times have you now been humiliated by me?

Zero times.

"Other facts include the fact"

You've humiliated yourself with every post though.

As I said, if you want to do real logic rather than milk toast namby pamby BS you do it in a department of mathematics or computer science not in a department of philosophy.

MtMoru said...

"truth table which was crucial in the development of the electronic circuit board and electronic digital computer"

And Al Gore invented the internet. Wiki it.

"Ludwig Wittgenstein is credited with their invention in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus although Peirce and Jevons are suggested to have been aware of them before."

Promotion vs truth. Wiki it.

MtMoru said...

"disliked many professional philosophers but he also hated most scientists and mathematicians equally and thought philosophy was the noblest of all the academic disciplines"

More BS. Wittgenstein HATED ALL "professional philosophers" and he hated them because they were "professional philosophers".

He believed that "philosophy" was a mental disorder.

That he is at the top of the list for analytic "philosophers" says EVERYTHING.

That he was a 3/4 Jewish Christian true believer and homosexual says just as much ... about analytic "philosophy".

NicolasBourbaki said...

Let's see: I've caught you lying several times about your claims of expertise in philosophy and humiliated you when it was shown that you posted a forgery of a GRE score report claiming it was yours.   And yes, philosophers do work in logic and do it publishing in journals you simply lack the processing power to even begin to understand. How does it feel to know that you will never attain to such intellectual feats, my dear boy? Bested by mere philosophers!

NicolasBourbaki said...

"That he was a 3/4 Jewish Christian true bliever and homosexual says just as much ... about analytic "philosophy""

Yes, of course, the lying bigot finally shows his true colors.

NicolasBourbaki said...

"More BS. Wittgenstein HATED ALL "professional philosophers" and he hated them because they were "professional philosophers". "

Again, who do you think you're trying to bullshit?

"He believed that "philosophy" was a mental disorder."

Are you 12 years old or something?

MtMoru said...

Arthur Burks:

"He earned his B.A. in mathematics and physics from DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana"

Yet another example. "Philosophers" are only useful when they aren't "philosophers" and only highly regarded by analytic "philosophers" when they aren't philosophers.

MtMoru said...

Apparently I know more about Wittgenstein than you.

MtMoru said...

"Let's see: I've caught you lying several times about your claims of expertise in philosophy and humiliated you when it was shown that you posted a forgery of a GRE score report claiming it was yours."

Never happened.

MtMoru said...

Wait both the one guy you mentioned and Wittgenstein came to "philosophy" only after studying maths.

MtMoru said...

Again it is odd that you should identify so strongly with the Anglophone "philosophy" of the last century given that English is not your native language.

I don't hate philosophers only "philosophers".

MtMoru said...

"This is the bajilionth time I've made a complete ass out of you, my dear fellow."

The bajilionth? That should be the zeroth after a bajillion attempts.

MtMoru said...

"my dear boy...My dear boy"

Again, you've humiliated yourself with every post though.

MtMoru said...

What colors are those Nick?

MtMoru said...

aagain zero times. The score is still Me 1 - You 0.

NicolasBourbaki said...

You should have read his bio more carefully. He got his MA and PhD in philosophy and taught in the philosophy department for 50 years. He also considered himself a philosopher and was a member of the APA (in fact, a division president at one point). 

"He earned his B.A. in mathematics and physics from DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana in 1936 and his M.A. and Ph.D. inphilosophy from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1937 and 1941, respectively."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_BurksThis is the bajilionth and one time I've humiliated you. Me a bajilionth and one and you 0. 

NicolasBourbaki said...

"Wait both the one guy you mentioned and Wittgenstein came to "philosophy" only after studying maths."

Yes, even mathematicians sometimes come to their senses. No, W was never a math major. He did study engineering. In fact, he was a very successful engineering student after obtaining a patent for the precursor to the propeller used in modern jet engines. But he realized that engineering was not all that important to life and dropped his engineering studies a year before completing his doctorate in aeronautical engineering and began afresh at the undergrad level studying philosophy.  He clearly has more sense than you or any other philistine who can't see the value in something so valuable. 

NicolasBourbaki said...

"And btw you don't know what "belittle" means (or "anecdotal"). Why aren't you more interested in the philosophical tradition of your own native language?"

Again, you show your ignorance of the meaning of basic English words. 'Belittle' isn't even an SAT word. It's a word a twelve year old should know much like 'anecdotal.' 


"2.to cause to make small; dwarf"http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/belittle"to cause (a person or thing) to seem little or less"The bajilionth and two times I've humiliated you.

NicolasBourbaki said...

Your responses isn't even written in coherent and grammatically correct English never mind being relevant and correct and yet you complain about other people's grammar? 

MtMoru said...

Like I didn't read that. You don't get the point. The bajilionth time you've humiliated yourself.

MtMoru said...

As a non-native speaker you're forgiven for using this word incorrectly.

MtMoru said...

They're perfectly grammatical Nick. It might take a native speaker to see that though. I'm not complaining, but a non-native speaker sticks out, and it is strange that one whose first language isn't English should be so devoted to twentieth century Anglophone philosophy.

MtMoru said...

Actually Wittgenstein showed up at Cambridge the first time because he had an interest in maths and mathematical logic.

" But he realized that engineering was not all that important "

Seriously, how old are you?

" He clearly has more sense than you or any other philistine who can't see the value in something so valuable."

You mean like ALL employers?

And I do value philosophy. I just don't value analytic "philosophy". It isn't philosophy. Just like I don't value the art of Robert Rauschenberg.

NicolasBourbaki said...

You didn't even know many of the most important 20th century philosophers were (despite cursory googling). Stop your bullshitting. It's not fooling all but the most naive. 

NicolasBourbaki said...

"As a non-native speaker you cannot understand usage by reading a definition."

That's because I didn't do that. I learned the meaning through common usage as did the linguists at the dictionary who included that definition as does all speakers of the language. The fact is is that the definition of 'belittle' is what it is. It shows that you didn't even know what it meant despite it being a very common word in that usage. To a non native English speaker, understandable not knowing that definition, but to a native speaker...again, I suspect brain damage.

NicolasBourbaki said...

You are seriously deficient. Wittgenstein had tramendous respect for quite a few philosophers such as Augustine, Kierkegaard, Moore, Kant and many others thereby proving that what you said:

"More BS. Wittgenstein HATED ALL "professional philosophers" 

See Monk's biography for details. 

"He believed that "philosophy" was a mental disorder."

Unfortunately, stupidity is not considered a mental disorder. If it was you may qualify for government benefits. W did not think philosophy a mental disorder but that it was the answer to certain kinds of disorders (conceptual confusions). 

Bajilionth and four vs 0. 

NicolasBourbaki said...

Moron can't even spell "again" correctly and yet makes a big stink over other people's typos and "corrects" them on their usages of words such as "belittle". Of ocurse, everyone knows that's just a distraction and a pathetic attempt to save face.


'Belittle' means:

"2.to cause to make small; dwarf"

"to cause (a person or thing) to seem little or less"



'Anecdotal' means:

(of an account) not necessarily true or reliable, because based on personal accounts rather than facts or research:

From the Oxford English dictionary.  

If English is not your secondary language, what is your excuse? I can only think of one: stupidity.

MtMoru said...

Again I know more about Wittgenstein than you.

MtMoru said...

"You didn't even know many of the most important 20th century philosophers"

Your memory is as faulty as your grammar. And again analytic "philosophers" are not philosophers so even if I didn't know "many" rather than just one David K Lewis, that would tell you nothing about how many philosophers I hadn't heard of.

Why do you identify so strongly with the twentieth century philosophy in a language not your own? YOU STILL HAVEN'T ANSWERED.

MtMoru said...

Again you may read these definitions, anyone can do that, but either you don't understand them (in the case of "anecdotal") or they have too little info for a non-native speaker to use them correctly (in the case of "belittle").

I don't see "again" misspelled. Your problem is not typos. It's that English is not your first language. Unless you learned it before age 13 you will never be able to pass.

MtMoru said...

"I learned the meaning through common usage"

But you didn't.

"as did the linguists working at the dictionaries"

I don't know how dictionaries are written in your native language, but that's not how English dictionaries are written. If you'd only taken the trouble to read the introduction to a dictionary you'd know that and you'd know that everything Wittgenstein had to say was said by a lexicographer first.

NicolasBourbaki said...

I haven't answered because it is an irrelevant red herring. I actually don't identify that strongly with most analytic philosophy. I don't "identify" with physics either but I do realize that it is an important discipline and that I appreciate learning about it and I will defend it from quacks, charlatans and bullshit artists. I also don't identify with mathematics and yet I like to learn about it and appreciate its strengths and will defend it against quacks and bullshit artists much like you who don't know a lick about it and wax on about its uselessness. Philosophy is valuable like all these other disciplines and if you're gonna criticize it, you should at least learn about what you're criticizing. That's why I've been able to make such a fool out of you so easily. 

BTW, you still haven't answered what is your excuse for not knowing what 'anecdotal' and 'belittle' means. We have already established that it is not because English is a second language for you. So what is it? (I already know the answer but I'd like to hear you admit it). 

MtMoru said...

Right. You don't know what those words mean. I do. But I should. English is my first language.

"quacks, charlatans and bullshit artists" --- that's analytic "philosophers" for sure.

NicolasBourbaki said...

Oxford English dictionary


"mtmoron" 0

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