The Man Who Invented the Computer: The Biography of John Atanasoff, Digital Pioneer

Jane Smiley, Doubleday, $25.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-385-52713-2
Novelist Smiley explores the story of the now mostly forgotten Atanasoff, a brilliant and engaged physicist and engineer who first dreamed of and built a computational machine that was the prototype for the computer. 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. In 1936, Atanasoff and his colleague, A.E. Brandt, modified an IBM tabulator—which used punched cards to add or subtract values represented by the holes in the cards—to get it to perform in a better, faster, and more accurate way. One December evening in 1937, Atanasoff, still struggling to hit upon a formula that would allow a machine to replicate the human brain, drove from Ames, Iowa, to Rock Island, Ill., where, over a bourbon and soda in a roadside tavern, he sketched his ideas for a machine that would become the computer. As with many scientific discoveries or inventions, however, the original genius behind the innovation is often obscured by later, more aggressive, and savvy scientists who covet the honor for themselves. Smiley weaves the stories of other claimants to the computer throne (Turing and von Neumann, among others) into Atanasoff's narrative, throwing into relief his own achievements. (Oct.)
Reviewed on: 09/13/2010
Release date: 10/01/2010
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