Who Holds the Patent for the Invention of the Computer?

By Nathalie Gosset
Iowa state contour with Capital City against blurred USA flag image by Stasys Eidiejus from Fotolia.com

John Vincent Atanasoff and Clifford Berry invented the first electronic computer at Iowa State University and applied for a patent for it in 1939. Unfortunately, the lack of attention to the patent application during World War II caused the application to elapse, and the computer concept became part of the public domain. Presper Eckert and John W. Mauchly developed and patented ENIAC in 1946, which was claimed to be the first digital computer patent. This patent was legally voided by the U.S. Federal Court in 1973 on the grounds that ENIAC was derived from the design of Atanasoff and Berry. Therefore, Atanasoff stands as the first inventor, but no one holds the patent for the first computer.

Context for Atanasoff’s Invention

Vincent Atanasoff’s aspiration to invent the computer stemmed from his experiments with electronic fields and vacuum tubes. He was longing for an automated way to run complex computations. Not satisfied with the mathematical calculators of the time, he decided to build his own calculator, which he called the Laplaciometer. However, his design disappointed him as much as previous solutions. His frustration with this analog calculator forced him to venture outside of conventional ideas and explore the feasibility of a digital calculator.

Atanasoff’s Invention

Vincent Atanasoff received a $650 grant from Iowa State University in 1939 and partially used these funds to hire Clifford Berry, an electrical engineering student. Together they built the ABC system (the Atanasoff-Berry Computer). Although World War II slowed down their activities for a couple of years, they turned the ABC into a computing tool that performed its function using binary mathematics and algorithms. This system introduced, for the first time, the concept of parallel processing for communications between the memory functions and computing functions.

Context for ENIAC

Presper Eckert and John W. Mauchly from the University of Pennsylvania's Moore School of Electrical Engineering developed and patented the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Calculator (ENIAC) in 1946. The Ballistic Research Laboratory started funding these efforts in 1943 with the hopes of obtaining a calculating machine that could rapidly calculate weapon and artillery settings for more accurate targeting.

The Invention of ENIAC

The ENIAC computer could run mathematical calculations using digital numbers 0 through 9 in a similar manner as computations that were done by hand (decimal computational operations), not relying on the binary system (0's and 1's) that the ABC system leveraged. It introduced new concepts such as storing computer programs and operating from subroutines written around specific programming languages. The building of ENIAC cost half a million dollars and occupied about 170 square meters of space.

Patent Controversy

Mauchly and Eckert's patent (3,120,606) was granted in 1964 and the rights were acquired by Sperry. Three years later, Sperry Rand Corporation took Honeywell to court on the grounds that Honeywell was infringing on Mauchly's patent. However, in 1973, District Court Judge Earl R. Larson from the U.S. Federal Court invalidated the patent on the grounds that it was a derivation of the original ABC machine. The controversy stemmed from the fact that Atanasoff and Mauchly had been corresponding in the early 1940s and that Mauchly was aware of the ABC computer. Mauchly maintained through the years that his idea for fast computing algorithms evolved from observing cosmic-ray counting devices.

Recognition

President George Bush presented the National Medal of Technology to Atanasoff at the White House in 1990. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly were granted the prestigious IEEE Computer Society Pioneer Award in 1980.

About the Author

Nathalie Gosset started writing for technical journals such as “Lightwave” in 1990. Awarded the 2009 IEEE Engineer of the Year and 2007 EMBS Career Achievement recognitions for her philanthropic outreach, she authored her first professional development book, “Hidden Jobs, How to Find Them!” in 2009. Gosset has a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering, a Master in Telecom and a Master of Business Administration.