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Alan Jacobs

The Man Who Delivered the Computer

John von Neumann.

The novelist Jane Smiley has written an interesting and informative book called The Man Who Invented the Computer, which is marred chiefly by its title. Smiley herself clearly has mixed feelings about it. At times she is bold and straightforward in her claims:

The inventor of the computer was a thirty-four-year-old associate professor of physics at Iowa State College named John Vincent Atanasoff. There is no doubt that he invented the computer (his claim was affirmed in court in 1978) and there is no doubt that the computer was the most important (though not the most deadly) invention of the twentieth century …. Where and when did Atanasoff invent the computer? In a roadhouse in Rock Island, Illinois, while having a drink. He jotted his notes on a cocktail napkin.

(This happened in December of 1937.) But at other points in the book, Smiley is more nuanced and even evasive; she writes many sentences that freely acknowledge multiple progenitors of the computer: "All of the twentieth-century computer inventors were aware of [Charles] Babbage's work," one of them begins, and here is another: "There was no inventor of the computer who was not a vivid personality, and no two are alike." It's hard not to think that the bold, even grandiose, claim of Smiley's title stems from her determination to give credit to a forgotten genius, who also happens to have taught at the same university where Jane Smiley has been a faculty member for many years. But it surely also stems from a general public desire to know who came up with the machine that has done so much to transform our daily lives and the shape of our social order. The problem is that, however we might like to designate someone as The Inventor of the Computer, we just can't. No matter what a court might affirm.

Intrinsic to that problem is this: the question "Who invented the computer?" is hopelessly vague. What do you mean by "the computer"? Mechanical calculating machines go back at least to the 17th century, with Pascal. ...

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