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Books

'The Man Who Invented the Computer' Was Not Steve Jobs or Bill Gates

Jim Higgins
Postal Stamp (partial): John Atanasoff - 1903-1995 / Artist: Hristo Aleksiev / Client: Bulgarian Post
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MCT)

John Atanasoff's invention -- 74 inches long, 36 inches deep and about 40 inches tall -- was a milestone, but also only a steppingstone to the personal computers we depend on today.


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

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Length: 256 pages
Author: Jane Smiley
Price: $25.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2010-10
Amazon

Neither Steve Jobs nor Bill Gates invented the computer, despite the impressions they tend to leave. The guy with the best claim to making the first "automatic electronic digital computer" was John Atanasoff, a 34-year-old associate professor of physics at Iowa State College.

So why isn't Atanasoff as famous as Gates, or Jobs, or even his contemporary, Alan Turing? As novelist Jane Smiley (A Thousand Acres, Moo) explains in her biography of Atanasoff, The Man Who Invented the Computer, Iowa State didn't really grasp what Atanasoff had wrought: "His ideas were so advanced that he had to prove they were worth something to people who did not really understand them."

The inventor himself didn't always play nice with others, and World War II, though an enormous stimulus to computer development itself, got in the way of both patent processes and scientific information sharing. Also, some other early computer scientists adapted or stole some of Atanasoff's work, then tried to diminish or obscure the original inventor's role in the creation story of the machine. Atanasoff, who earned his doctorate in physics from the University of Wisconsin in 1930, began working on a calculating machine because, Smiley writes, "He saw over and over again that all scientific and engineering progress would be retarded until some sort of breakthrough in methods of calculation."

Smiley describes him as a classic American innovator, inquisitive, practical and hands-on. In 1937-'38, he worked out the basic principles of his machine: electronic logic circuits that would perform a calculation by turning on or off; binary enumeration, a number system with only the digits 0 and 1; capacitors for regenerative memory; and computing via direct logical action, by counting rather than measuring. The Atanasoff-Berry Computer, 74 inches long, 36 inches deep and about 40 inches tall, including casters, was operational by mid-1940.

Atanasoff described how the machine worked in a 35-page paper he wrote to attract more funding. That paper became a critical element in a court decision that affirmed Atanasoff as the inventor of the computer in 1978. That court decision invalidated a patent other scientists had claimed.

"The result," Smiley writes, "was as John von Neumann had suspected — once the ideas became common property, innovation blossomed, and the computer revolution took hold." Smiley deftly sketches other innovators working on similar and overlapping projects simultaneously, including Turing, von Neumann, Atanasoff rival John Mauchly and German inventor Konrad Zuse, building his own machine under the nose of the Nazis.

Atanasoff's invention was a milestone, but also only a steppingstone to the personal computers we depend on today. "The Second World War was the sine qua non of the invention of the computer and the transformation of the nature of information and the nature of human thought that the computer age has brought about," Smiley writes.

Some passages of Smiley's bio are challenging simply because the topics, mathematical and mechanical, require effort to grasp. Her writing is clear and crisp. Her detailed account of the trial that confirmed Atanasoff's stature could practically serve as a treatment for a "Law & Order: Intellectual Property".

She also finds plenty of drama and personality along the way: "There was no inventor of the computer," she writes about these scientists collectively, "who was not a vivid personality, and no two are alike." She is fair-minded to all parties in the evolution of the computer, and scrupulous in sourcing her material. Whether this was a labor of love or a bread-and-butter job for the eclectic Smiley, readers can be grateful she used her intelligence and narrative skills to tell this story.

7
Music

The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

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In an era of reboots and revivals, we've invented a new form of entertainment: speculation. It sometimes seems as if we enjoy begging for television shows to return more than watching them when they're on the air. And why wouldn't we? We can't be disappointed by our own imaginations. Only the realities of art and commerce get in the way.

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Wars of attrition are a matter of stamina, of who has the most tools with which to keep fighting. A surprising common tool in this collection? Humor.

The name of the game is "normal or abnormal". Here's how you play: When some exceedingly shocking political news pops up on your radar, turn to the person next to you, read them the headline and ask, "is this normal or abnormal?" If you want to up the stakes, drink a shot every time the answer is abnormal. If that's too many shots, alter the rules so that you drink only when things are normal—which is basically never, these days. Hilarious, right?

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