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The man who invented the computer : Comments

By David Fisher, published 19/7/2013

Even though an investigation verified that Mauchly had stolen the basic ideas for the digital computer from Atanasoff he won the public relations battle.

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can I suggest you read Edwin Black's book, 'IBM and the Holocaust' a fascinating story described on his website as "The stunning story of IBM's strategic alliance with Nazi Germany, beginning in 1933 in the first weeks that Hitler came to power and continuing well into World War II.

As the Third Reich embarked upon its plan of conquest and genocide, IBM and its subsidiaries helped create enabling technologies, step-by-step, from the identification and cataloging programs of the 1930s to the selections of the 1940s.

Only after Jews were identified, a massive and complex task that Hitler wanted done immediately, could they be targeted for efficient asset confiscation, ghettoization, deportation, enslaved labor, and, ultimately, annihilation. It was a cross-tabulation and organizational challenge so monumental, it called for a computer. Of course, in the 1930s no computer existed.

But IBM's Hollerith punch card technology did exist. Aided by the company's custom-designed and constantly updated Hollerith systems, Hitler was able to automate his persecution of the Jews..., IBM technology was used to organize nearly everything in Germany and then Nazi Europe...

IBM and its German subsidiary custom-designed complex solutions, one by one, anticipating the Reich's needs. They did not merely sell the machines and walk away. Instead, IBM leased these machines for high fees and became the sole source of the billions of punch cards Hitler needed.

IBM and the Holocaust takes you through the carefully crafted corporate collusion with the Third Reich, as well as the structured deniability of oral agreements, undated letters, and the Geneva intermediaries, all undertaken as the newspapers blazed with accounts of persecution and destruction.

Just as compelling is the human drama of one of our century's greatest minds, IBM founder Thomas Watson, who cooperated with the Nazis for the sake of profit.

Only with IBM's technologic assistance was Hitler able to achieve the staggering numbers of the Holocaust. Edwin Black has now uncovered one of the last great mysteries of Germany's war against the Jews, how did Hitler get the names?"

Regards, Geoff
Posted by Geoff of Perth, Friday, 19 July 2013 4:42:27 PM
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David, don't despair! Your previous opinions of Mauchly and Eckert are correct -- Smiley's book is wrong.

The story of the Atanasoff-Berry Computer -- which wasn't called a "computer" until Honeywell lawyers heard about it years later -- was debunked many years ago, by real historians, before Smiley wrote her version.

It's not that Atanasoff/Berry were bad people, or that they didn't make an interesting machine. It's even true that Mauchly was classy and asked Atanasoff if he'd object to Mauchly building a similar machine.

BUT, the machine Mauchly actually built was totally different. ENIAC did have one of two technical concepts similar to Atanasoffs, BUT, Atanasoff didn't invent those -- Babbage did. Moreover, Atanasoff's device was a calculator, not a computer (it had no programmability), and it wasn't fully electronic. The concept if an electromechanical calculator originated well before Atanasoff. Atanasoff himself nor anyone else at Iowa bothered to patent it, and they scavenged it for parts later on -- it just wasn't that important. Its importance was more or less made up decades later by Honeywell's lawyers.

Smiley is an acclaimed * fiction * writer, with no technical knowledge, who's affiliated with the same school as Atanasoff. What story do you expect her to tell? She was duped, and innocent readers like you are the victims.
Posted by Evan K., Saturday, 20 July 2013 3:33:59 AM
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Dear Geoff,

I have read Black’s book. Corporations are in business to make money. If they can make it by aiding Nazis in slaughtering Jews most will do so. I doubt that T. J. Watson was one of our century's greatest minds. A friend of mine told me that his father was invited to an IBM board meeting to present a proposal. Watson ordered one of the men at the table to leave and make a place for the visitor. As the man left the room Watson yelled, “And don’t turn your back on me!” Watson was a lifelong Methodist, and a big supporter of the Boy Scouts. Business ethics may not be consistent with personal ethics.

London based Rio Tinto, now RTZ, saw that Hitler’s air force was supplied with titanium. It backed Franco in his overthrow of the Spanish republic. When Franco invaded Spain his first military action was to slaughter 2,000 striking Rio Tinto workers.

Dear Evan K,

I don’t think Smiley was duped. I could detect no technical errors in the book, and I was thoroughly acquainted with the technology of that time. I still regard Eckert highly. I have published both fiction and non-fiction and think writing one does not disqualify me for writing the other.

Her connection with Iowa is not a cause for suspicion. It probably was what prompted her to write the book.

I don’t think Justice Larson was duped either. Patents are not vacated lightly. They are not given for ideas. They are given for working devices. Babbage could not make his computer work with the inadequate technology of the time. The ideas for a computer go well back in time. Muhammad ibn al-Khwarizmi (c. 780-c.850) developed the idea of an algorithm (a Latinised version of his name) which is essential for the computer. Ada Lovelace, Babbage’s programmer, developed the idea of programmable routines. Goldstine and von Neumann first came into print with the idea of computer memory containing both instructions and data in the same format.

Posted by david f, Sunday, 21 July 2013 6:01:19 AM
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I had charge of three people mapping the French-Swiss Alps for the Army Map Service. To solve the problem we had to solve a series of simultaneous equations. Atanasoff’s machine would have been much better for the purpose. As it was we had a thousand word memory (compare that with current gigabyte & terabyte capacity) which had to contain both the program and the data we were working on. Data would be brought in from and put out to a group of ten servomechanisms containing magnetic tapes. It was a sight to see them all spinning. Currently one would not have to worry about any of that. Just bring all the data in at one time and work on it.

As far as Atanasoff not patenting his device I have had patentable ideas for devices but have not patented them. I was friends with a Remington-Rand patent attorney. We remained friends after I left the company. He told me that more was spent on patenting ideas than was ever realised from those patents. Unless one gets financing or is a businessman one doesn’t usually profit from the ideas. I had the ideas but would have had to build a device incorporating those ideas and to market it if I were to profit from it. I was not a businessman.

Smiley’s book rings true to me but not to you.
Posted by david f, Sunday, 21 July 2013 6:13:48 AM
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David, a fascinating account. You've been involved in some fascinating times and your insights are highly informative.

I'm going to make a point of reading Smiley's book.
Posted by Antiseptic, Sunday, 21 July 2013 7:38:58 AM
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Judge L.'s decision is open for debate (although not among professional computer historians, who settled it in Mauchly's favor years ago) -- I understand and respect that you were there, but that doesn't excuse you from doing your homework about the case.

Regardless, what ideas do you think Mauchly and/or Eckert stole from Atanasoff? (The answer is: there aren't any; Atanasoff did nothing that hadn't been done or at least thought of / written down before his time. Also, as I noted in my previous comment, Atanasoff's machine was a decent calculator, but it was not a computer -- and even if it had been one, it was still electromechanical.)

Whether Ms. Smiley -- a non-technical, non-historian -- understood any of that, or whether she was just looking out for her local hero -- remains to be seen.

For her to imply that Mauchly/Eckert had some hand in Berry's death is appalling.

Incidentally, you also wrote: "Goldstine and von Neumann first came into print" -- turn again to Mauchly and Eckert for where G/vN got those ideas. (Speaking of a TRUE story where ideas were appropriated...)
Posted by Evan K., Sunday, 21 July 2013 2:15:19 PM
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