Readers Respond on the "Origin of Computing"

Letters to the editor from the September 2009 issue of Scientific American


Patent Lead
In “Origin of Computing,” Martin Campbell-Kelly writes that the first digital computer was J. Presper Eckert and John W. Mauchly’s ENIAC, finished in 1945 as part of the war effort. But the first person to build and operate an electronic digital computer was a physics professor, as noted in “Dr. Atanasoff’s Computer,” published in the August 1988 Scientific American. John Vincent Atanasoff’s first computer was a 12-bit, two-word machine running at 60-hertz wall-plug frequency and could add and subtract binary numbers stored in a logic unit built with seven triode tubes. This was 1937. There was no war, no Pearl Harbor, just a theoretical physicist trying to solve problems in quantum mechanics with his students at Iowa State College in Ames, Iowa.
John Hauptman
Department of Physics
Iowa State University

In one of the longest cases—lasting almost five years—in the history of the U.S. federal courts, Honeywell v. Sperry Rand, Judge Earl R. Larson concluded in the 1973 verdict that Eckert and Mauchly’s patent for the ENIAC was invalid. Judge Larson declared that Eckert and Mauchly “did not themselves first invent the automatic electronic digital computer but instead derived that subject matter from one Dr. John Vincent Atanasoff.”
Edward B. Watters
Newberg, Ore.

CAMPBELL-KELLY REPLIES: Computer historians are cautious about assigning priorities to inventors. I did not state that Eckert and Mauchly invented the electronic computer but rather that they invented a particular computer, the ENIAC. I also said that “computing entered the electronic age with the ENIAC,” which is true in the sense of a practical computing instrument of fairly broad application.

There were several electronic computing developments during World War II, both preceding and contemporaneous with the ENIAC, of which the Atanasoff machine was one—others included the NCR code-breaking machines, the Zuse Z4 computer in Germany, and the Colossus code-breaking computer in the U.K. In a short article I could not acknowledge them all. Atanasoff’s machine was a little-known computer that was restricted to a narrow class of problems, was not programmable and was never fully functional.

Atanasoff discontinued development in 1942, and his work was virtually unknown until 1971, when Honeywell brought the suit against Sperry Rand to invalidate the ENIAC patent. During the trial it was revealed that Mauchly had visited Atanasoff and had seen his computer in June 1941. What he learned from this visit cannot be known, but the design of the ENIAC bore no resemblance to the Atanasoff computer. Mauchly himself claimed that he took away “no ideas whatsoever.” Although the judge gave priority of invention to Atanasoff, this was a legal judgment that surprised many historians.

Fossils for All
Your editorial “Fossils for All” [Perspectives] singled me out as the example of “how science suffers by hoarding.” This disrespects dozens of Middle Awash project scientists from 19 different countries who have worked on these fossils for years. We have shared our results by publishing 6,400 journal, book and monograph pages. Most recently, we have communicated project discoveries to the scientific community via the most extensive special issue of Science since Apollo 11 ( We reached the public with a two-hour television documentary (

This article was originally published with the title "The First Computer Fights over Fossils."

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