Scott McCartney
ENIAC: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the World's First Computer

"Even though computers have made memory a thing you can buy at stores, we have already forgotten the origins of these remarkable machines." (p. 4)
Never has a single book caused me to do so much supplemental research. And it isn't even on a topic that was of incredible interest to me prior to reading! But McCartney hooked me in, and now I feel like I need to take a side in the "Who invented the computer?" debate.

ENIAC begins (after the first couple dozen pages on the history of pre-computer foundation building--Pascal, Babbage, Leibniz, Hollerith, Bush, Stibitz, Aiken, etc.) with biographical sketches on Eckert and Mauchly for about fifty pages. Then we receive more than 100 pages of how ENIAC, BINAC, UNIVAC and the company that made them, EMCC, came into being. The narrative is more story-like than a detailed, technical depiction of how these machines were put together and worked. The final fifty pages are the most interesting for in them the (non-von Neumann portion of the) controversy lies.

The history of the designing and building of ENIAC is a fairly long one, lasting years. The highlights include the fact that it would have never been funded, and hence built, were it not for the war. Universities didn't have the money and/or weren't willing to take the chance at the time. However, after ENIAC was built

it was [an] instant inspiration for the world of computing. As ENIAC captured the dreams of Eckert and Mauchly, it sent many others off to chase new dreams of their own. (p. 108)
This inspiration wasn't necessarily encouraged by the inventors however. They wanted to capitalize on the idea. Herman Goldstine, an army officer who originally pitched the idea to the government, ended up having other plans. He had a chance meeting with the famous mathematician John von Neumann and spilled the beans about ENIAC. Von Neumann entered through the crack in the door that had been opened to him. He visited with Eckert and Mauchly on a frequent basis. This relationship resulted in the creation of a document authored by Goldstine and von Neumann (with all the credit being given to von Neumann and with Eckert and Mauchly not even being mentioned!) called First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC by John von Neumann. The EDVAC was the next version of the ENIAC which Eckert and Mauchly also created. McCartney clearly shows how von Neumann isn't the sole, or even the primary developer of, the "von Neumann architecture" which is the basis for the structure of modern computing. "Von Neumann architecture" is a misnomer. What von Neumann did, and what Eckert and Mauchly failed to do, is publicize what they were doing. So von Neumann not only fueled the field (certainly a good thing from a public perspective), but he took credit for it or at least didn't provide credit where due. Eckert and Mauchly, on the other hand, did give credit to von Neumann on certain things when they wrote about their labors on a rare occasion. Goldstine, however, classified their report as "confidential" so it would not be distributed. He personally distributed dozens of copies of von Neumann's report. McCartney concludes
John von Neumann did many great things in science. But taking credit for the ideas of others, whether by commission or omission, diminishes his stature. (p. 128)
Ultimately, Eckert and Mauchly were too slow to patent their work, not good salesmen, and unable to realize that they had to sell their product initially on a cost-plus basis to make money. Hence, Mauchly died without any money and Eckert without any stemming from his relationship to the creation of the modern computer.

Things get even more interesting and another controversy begins in Chapter 8. Some will say that McCartney is hypocritical in dismissing von Neumann but not giving Mauchly equal treatment with respect to John V. Atanasoff. A search of the internet with respect to Atanasoff, von Neumann, Eckert, and Mauchly will show a clear bias towards Atanasoff as the inventor of the computer, with von Neumann in second place and with Eckert and Mauchly in a very distant third. (It will also show you that the internet sites are copying from each other or a common source rather than doing decent, detailed research of their own.) This incorrect attribution is because of a judge's decision which, as McCartney shows, had far more to do with the good of the industry than it did with who really came up with the key ideas. Perhaps the biggest step in determining who created the first computer is in defining what a computer is. Depending on that definition, a host of possible firsts can be crowned.

Alan Turing built a succession of vacuum-tube machines called Colossus (in secret and prior to ENIAC). This feat is nowhere mentioned in the book. Why? For the same reason Atanasoff wouldn't have likely been mentioned had it not been for the Honeywell lawsuit against Sperry (which later became UNISYS). Turing's machines didn't fit McCartney's definition of computer as it was a special-purpose machine. McCartney should have at least mentioned this fact.

ENIAC did other things that neither Turing or Atanasoff's machines did.

The structures of the two machines [Turing's machine is not being compared] were entirely different, as well. ENIAC had a clock to govern its operations. The Atanasoff had no clock, so its internal operations couldn't be coordinated; once the problem was set, the machine went like a runaway train all the way to the end. The Atanasoff converted numbers to base 2; ENIAC ran in base 10. The two employed different logic in their circuits. ENIAC had the novel "counting circuits" Eckert had come up with that used tubes simply as on-off switches; the Atanasoff counted by measuring accumulated voltage inside a tube. ENIAC stored numbers in its accumulators, which could also perform math functions, while the Atanasoff had a rotating drum pocked with capacitors that stored numbers in the electrical charge of the capacitors. (p. 183)
Other differences included speed and the general design. Atanasoff's ABC machine was much more like a calculator than anything we would consider a computer. Also, and perhaps foremost, is the fact that Atanasoff's machine was serial whereas ENIAC was parallel and ENIAC was programmable. The programming wasn't like that of today. It was done by changing hardware connections and rewiring rather than relying purely on software, but it was still a quantum leap forward from what the other proto-computers of the day could do. Key to the debate is that Atanasoff's machine was never fully operational and hence not patentable. A person certainly can't claim to be the sole inventor of something if they never get it to work!

Again, the focal point of the debate should be in the definition. Define what a computer is before entering the debate and a more objective answer will result.

Today, their triumph is tangled in words and qualifications. A plaque on the Moore School at the corner of Thirty-third and Walnut in Philadelphia reads: "Birthplace of ENIAC, World's First Electronic Large-Scale, General-Purpose Digital Computer." But what is a "computer," in today's language, if not electronic, if not digital, if not large-scale (powerful), and if not general-purpose? (p. 227)
So McCartney does an admirable job of attempting to give them back their due place in the history of computer science. The book is well-written, and the controversy with Atanasoff is particularly engaging. You will find yourself hooked even if you aren't particularly fascinated by the history of modern technology.

from the publisher:
For all his genius, John von Neumann is not, as he is often credited, the true father of the modern computer. That honor belongs to two men, John Mauchly and Presper Eckert, who designed and built the first digital, electronic computer. The story of their three-year race to create the legendary ENIAC and their three-decade struggle to gain credit for it has never been told and is a compelling tale of brilliance and misfortune.

Based on original interviews with surviving participants and the first study of Mauchly's and Eckert's personal papers, ENIAC is a vital contribution to the history of technology. Even in today's rough-and-tumble, high-tech world, it remains a stunning cautionary tale. You have Mauchly and Eckert to thank for your opportunity to own or rent computer technology today.