Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Comment on "The Man Who Invented the Computer"

I am listening to Jane Smiley, one of my favorite authors, talking about her new book, The Man Who Invented the Computer: The Biography of John Atanasoff, Digital Pioneer. The book seems interesting, but the title seems misleading.

The modern computer combines many different inventions. If there had not been punched card machines, vacuum tubes, what would have been invented, when? Did Babbage who created the Difference Engine invent the computer? Did Blaise Pascal who invented the first digital calculator make the key invention, or John von Neumann who is seen as inventing the idea of a computer that could modify its own program deserve the credit. Note too that Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (the daughter of Lord Byron) is credited with having published the first algorithm, and without algorithms computers would not be worth having.

I think the patent office does it right by giving patents on adjudicated claims for specific innovations included in a device which has been reduced to practice. Atanasoff seems to have moved from a special purpose analogue computer to a binary machine using vacuum tubes to carry out arithmetic operations, which was surely an important step. However, his machine did not have a "central processing unit". John Mauchly knew about Atanasoff's machine and may have been influenced by it in the creation of the ENIAC computer.

Wikipedia also credits Atanasoff with inventing the regenerative capacitor memory, a phenomenon which is used today in DRAM memory units. However, there have been many versions of the technology for relatively high speed random access memories, and Wikipedia cites Robert Dennard as holding the key DRAM patent.

1 comment:

john said...

Its good comment on to the man who invented computer.
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