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

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Description Event abstract: One night in the late s, in a bar on the Illinois-Iowa border, John Vincent Atanasoff, a professor of physics at Iowa State University, after a frustrating day performing tedious mathematical calculations in his lab, hit on the idea that the binary number system and electronic switches, combined with an array of capacitors on a moving drum to serve as memory, could yield a computing machine that would make his life and the lives of other similarly burdened scientists easier.

Then he went back and built the machine. It worked. The whole world changed. But in a court declared that the patent on that Sperry Rand device was invalid, opening the intellectual property gates to the computer revolution. Join Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Jane Smiley in a conversation with the Computer History Museum's John Hollar about the fascinating man who beat the world's greatest minds in the quest to develop the first true digital computing machine. This event is the first in our lecture series celebrating Revolutionaries, featuring conversations with and about some of the most distinguished thinkers in the computing field.

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Modern Love, Revised and Updated. Presper Eckert for the first and only time, when Mauchly brought him to the gun factory in search of help with quartz transducers. Since Eckert did not have a high security clearance, the two men had to have a military escort, so the visit was brief and unrevealing. It was only later that it occurred to him that quartz transducers could be used in a computer to regenerate memory. It weighed twenty-seven tons, was eight feet long, eight feet high, and three feet deep.

In addition to the 18, vacuum tubes, there were 7, diodes, 1, relays, 70, resistors, and 10, capacitors for memory storage. It required kilowatts of power, the equivalent of 1, watt lightbulbs. This could take weeks. As the war progressed in Germany, Konrad Zuse continued to exercise his special genius, which was not just working hard on innovations to his machine, but also making and using all sorts of social connections to circumvent the increasing difficulties of finding materials and developing new ideas.

As he began putting together the Z4, he cultivated acquaintances at the telephone exchange who had managed to avoid being drafted into the armed forces by making themselves appear more essential to the operation of German communications systems than they actually were. Finally, it was created—the first process controlled computer. Even if not a single person had been interested, I had the pleasure of solving a difficult problem once again.

Zuse and his colleagues began on the Z4 in , building the machine in Berlin in the midst of air raids and fire bombings. He managed to get down to the cellar and attempted to put out fires with a portable fire extinguisher, but the building burned to the ground anyway. All told, the Z4 had to be moved three times within the city limits of Berlin during the war. But Zuse was dedicated—when he writes about building the Z4 during the war, he suggests that he was more fearful of the computer not functioning than he was of more mortal outcomes:.

So, of course, when after weeks or months of work, I know that the time has come for the device to perform without a hitch, then the moment when the start button is to be pressed is especially tense. I always had a pronounced fear of such moments … It takes good nerves to withstand something like this for years on end. Zuse was not entirely cut off from the outside world, but communication channels were idiosyncratic. The daughter, who worked for German intelligence, responded by reporting that a similar machine was being developed in the United States.

Zuse concocted the ruse of sending two assistants to the intelligence offices, where they presented what looked like an official document from the Air Ministry, asking to see the information. They were turned down, but since they had been told which drawer the photo was in, they managed to find it and bring it back to Zuse.

John Atanasoff

Zuse could not infer many technical details from the photo, but he became further convinced that computer development would have many, many applications in the postwar world. Civilian production would also have been out of the question; it was officially forbidden. Like most of the other scientists working on computers, Aiken joined the war effort the Naval Reserve once his PhD was completed.


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The result was that Aiken became less and less involved with the final design features—the machine was taken over by the institutions that financed it. As the computer approached completion, IBM and Harvard made elaborate plans to unveil it in a joint ceremony. Aiken, however, seems to have done something—possibly contacting the press—that shifted the emphasis away from IBM and toward Harvard. Thomas J. Watson, Jr.

Alan Turing is now a famous man—the subject of biographies, papers, an opera, and at least one play, but his work at Bletchley Park breaking the Enigma code did not come to light until the s, and then, at first, only by means of popular books that did not actually mention him, or mentioned him in cryptic ways F.

Winterbotham, The Ultra Secret , ; A. Various accounts culminated in an episode about Turing and Enigma in a BBC series called The Secret War other episodes concerned radio beams, radar, magnetic mines, and the V-1 and V-2, prototype German cruise missiles.

But there was much more going on at Bletchley Park between and than the cracking of the Enigma code. The essential difference between Enigma messages communicated to German ships and Tunny messages was that Enigma messages were hand encoded, then communicated by radio broadcast, then hand decoded, while Tunny messages, also communicated by radio broadcast, were machine encoded and decoded, therefore not as subject to the human errors that allowed the English decoders to break the Enigma.

The Tunny messages were also much more complex. The German army set up a radio network between Ukraine in the east, Brittany in the west, Tunis in the south, and Oslo in the north. Some stations were fixed, but most consisted of two equipment-carrying trucks, one with a sending Lorenz machine, a receiving Lorenz machine, and a teleprinter, the other with radio equipment. Although in the early s Tommy Flowers was given permission to describe the workings of the code-breaking machine named Colossus that he and his team of engineers built at top speed in , he was forbidden to say what the machine had done or how it had been used in the war.

In , the British government finally declassified a long report on Colossus, written by code breakers in , that revealed not only the complexity of Colossus but also its importance—and it was dramatically important. The job of the Colossus team was the same as that of the Bombe builders—to infer by means of technical and theoretical deduction what the mechanical Lorenz encoding machines were doing and how they worked, and then to build a machine that mirrored that structure.

In a teleprinter machine, upon which the Lorenz was based, a long strip of paper about an inch and a half wide passed through a slot the way a piece of paper passes over the roller of a typewriter, short end first. It was advanced by means of a line of tiny sprocket holes about three-fifths of the way between the left edge and the right edge.


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The pattern of holes standing for each letter of the alphabet and other essential characters according to the Baudot-Murray code, which had been invented by Emile Baudot in , ran across the strip, three holes to the left of the sprocket holes and two holes to the right. The five positions in each row, some punched and some unpunched, represented a letter of the alphabet. A message communicated by a normal teleprinter or teletype machine, as it was called in the United States consisted of a long blank strip of paper to indicate that a message was beginning, followed by a strip riddled with lines of holes, the length of which depended on the message, which was followed by another empty strip that indicated the end of the message.

Obviously, such a way of representing letters is time-consuming to generate by hand but easy by machine, easier than Morse code because the machine can punch an entire line at one time. The job of the Lorenz machine was to take the principle of teletyping and encode the message so that it would be indecipherable except by the target Lorenz machine set to the same key as the originating machine. The products of the addition of the coded letters to the keystream letters were systematic, and because the system was binary, if the Tunny receiving machine was set to the same keystream, all it had to do was take the coded message and add the letters and symbols of the keystream to the coded message, and the original message was retrieved.

The Tunny Addition Square has 1, possible results just like a base-ten multiplication table has possible results.

Dan reacts : The men who invented the computer:John Atanasoff, Alan Turing, and Konrad Zuse

What the English eavesdroppers soon realized was that part of decoding the message was getting hold of the key often transmitted between operators by hand and using it to sift through the messages transmitted by machine. However, what Turing understood was that with twelve different wheels, the number of possible variations was more enormous than human decoders could manage.

Each wheel had a number of positions—wheel 1 had forty-two positions, wheel 2 had forty-seven positions, for example.

The job of the code breakers at Bletchley Park was to decipher the patterns in each set of teleprinted letters so that each shift of each wheel could be peeled away to reveal the original message. Intercepted encoded paper tapes were the raw material that Colossus had to process. Uncovering the shift pattern of one of the encoding wheels of the Lorenz machine was the key—once the position of the first wheel was ascertained, the positions of the next wheels became progressively easier to ascertain through Boolean logic.

And though sometimes with Enigma, the German operators encoding and sending the messages made mistakes that gave away the pattern, the mechanization of the Lorenz encoding process gave rise to fewer human errors, which was a large part of the reason Tunny was more difficult to decode.

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It was the job of German intelligence officers to designate the positions and of the Lorenz operators to set the positions. Until the summer of , the position of the psi wheels was set monthly and the chi wheels quarterly, then monthly. The motor wheels were set daily. As the war heated up in , the positions of all the wheels changed daily. The Dollis Hill communications research laboratories were located about eight miles northwest of central London, in an area that had originally been farms, then the estate of a politician who was a friend of William Gladstone and who had served as governor-general of Canada and lord lieutenant of Ireland.

As close as it was to central London, the area retained its rustic feel into the twentieth century.