The Man Who Invented the Computer Summary and Reviews

The Man Who Invented the Computer

The Biography of John Atanasoff, Digital Pioneer

by Jane Smiley

The Man Who Invented the Computer
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  • Published in USA  Oct 2010
    256 pages
    Genre: Biographies & Memoirs

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Book Summary

One night in the late 1930s, in a bar on the Illinois–Iowa border, John Vincent Atanasoff, a professor of physics at Iowa State University, after a frustrating day performing tedious mathematical calculations in his lab, hit on the idea that the binary number system and electronic switches, com­bined with an array of capacitors on a moving drum to serve as memory, could yield a computing machine that would make his life and the lives of other similarly burdened scientists easier. Then he went back and built the machine. It worked. The whole world changed.

Why don’t we know the name of John Atanasoff as well as we know those of Alan Turing and John von Neumann? Because he never patented the device, and because the developers of the far-better-known ENIAC almost certainly stole critical ideas from him. But in 1973 a court declared that the patent on that Sperry Rand device was invalid, opening the intellectual property gates to the computer revolution.

Jane Smiley tells the quintessentially American story of the child of immigrants John Atanasoff with technical clarity and narrative drive, making the race to develop digital computing as gripping as a real-life  techno-thriller.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"With her dazzling storytelling, Smiley narrates the tale of a driven young Iowa State University physics professor searching for a way to improve the speed and accuracy of mathematical calculations." - Publishers Weekly

"Smiley takes science history and injects it with a touch of noir and an exciting clash of vanities." - Kirkus

"A fascinating crossover read about one man's greatest brainstorms." - Barnes & Noble

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Peter Eckstein

Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy
This book is a major act of historical malpractice. Focusing just on the American side of the story, the one on which the false title is based, the book is researched at the level of a college term paper. Smiley has utilized only three books, one oral history and one journal article (out of dozens available) to tell her story. One of the dozen chapters has 26 references, all but two of them to a single, very one-sided book. She commits at least four dozen out-and-out factual errors--three in the photo captions alone. When she does quote accurately, it is all-too-often out of context or given a twist which was not there in the original.

The same characteristics are treated as virtues in her hero (Atanasoff) and vices in her villain (Mauchly), who in fact was the co-inventor of the country's first automatic electronic digital general-purpose computer but whom she treats as a scheming boob.

This is a book that should never have been commissioned (by the Sloan Foundation), written (by Smiley) or published (by Doubleday). Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy.

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Author Information

Jane Smiley Author Biography

Jane Smiley was born in Los Angeles, California, moved to the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri as an infant, and lived there through grammar school and high school (The John Burroughs School). After getting her BA at Vassar College in 1971, she traveled in Europe for a year, working on an archeological dig and sightseeing, and then returned to Iowa for graduate school at the University of Iowa.

MFA and PhD in hand, she went to work in 1981 at Iowa State University, in Ames, where she taught until 1996. Jane is the author of numerous novels including The Age of Grief, The Greenlanders, Ordinary Love and Good Will, A Thousand Acres, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, Moo, Horse Heaven, Good Faith, Ten Days in the Hills, and the young adult novel, The Georges...

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