Chapter 1: from ABC to ENIAC

Synopsis: John Atanasoff was arguably the first to make a digital binary electronic computer that worked, helped by Clifford Berry who was the electronics specialist in the partnership. War intervened before it could be developed beyond an interesting prototype but it was a remarkable device for its time. And if the story of how Atanasoff came up with the idea after a couple of whiskies at the end of a late night high-speed drive across half of Iowa has been told many times before (usually by the late Mr Atanasoff) then it still bears repeating.
However the bulk of this chapter is devoted to the story of John Mauchly and Presper Eckert, much of it from oral history interviews with a number of surviving members of the ENIAC and UNIVAC projects. Given that memory can be fallible or selective, the narrative doesn't rely on their accounts but has been cross-checked wherever possible with a number of other primary and secondary sources. Mauchly's widow Kay (right) and her good friend and ENIAC colleague Jean "Betty" Bartik (below) are the main source of memories and they provide some vivid pictures of the development of both computers.

I also attempt to reach some sort of conclusion about the relative contributions of Atanasoff-Berry and Eckert-Mauchly to the development of electronic computing, in the light of the notorious court case in the early 70s. I'm sure I will succeed in outraging both camps, but I'm happy to rest on Atanasoff's wise and much-quoted remark that "there is enough credit for everyone in the invention and development of the electronic computer”


Last updated 14 Dec 04