Chapter 2: UNIVAC -- Saviour of the Census

The Atanasoff-Mauchly controversy
My apologies to Atanasoff supporters who feel I have unjustly demeaned their hero.
My apologies to Mauchly supporters who feel I have unjustly demeaned their hero
My apologies to everyone who feels they don’t want to read another word about the Atanasoff-Mauchly controversy.
Actually I think Atanasoff’s creation was remarkable, deserves to be called an invention, and he should rightly be counted among the leading “fathers of the computer”. But the ABC wasn’t the start of the computer age, he failed to take his second opportunity to lead the race to build a true digital electronic stored program computer, and but for its influence on Mauchly the ABC would probably have led nowhere.
We’ll almost certainly never know for certain how much influence Atanasoff had on Mauchly’s ideas – if he really gave him the idea for digital computing that alone would put him high in the pantheon of pioneers. But even if Mauchly did take that much from Atanasoff, the ENIAC had a fundamentally different schematic and operated at true electronic speed but above all Mauchly was someone who got things done. He harnessed the wartime military budget to realise his dream, grabbing the faintest of opportunities with both hands, and forming a formidable partnership with Presper Eckert.
Who deserves most credit? Which is better, an apple or an orange? You can’t compare their contributions only accept Atanasoff’s wise words that “there is enough credit for everyone in the invention and development of the electronic computer”.
The nature of invention:
At the root of the Atanasoff-Mauchly controversy is the mistaken belief in invention, or more specifically the appealing myth of the Eureka moment. Yes sometimes inspiration does come in an instant, and Atanasoff had such a moment at the end of his famous high speed drive across Iowa to a roadside bar in neighbouring Illinois. But even that was only an outline concept, of black boxes and fundamental principles. It took place, as all these projects did in the context of a global advance in technology across the developed world. By the end of WW2 engineers and mathematicians in at least half a dozen countries – without any knowledge of the ABC – knew that you could make electronic circuits “count”. The real challenge was to develop a working memory and that was more a matter of painstaking development than a moment of invention.
(first draft 15/3/05)