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100 anniversary

The American engineers John Mauchly & John Eckert
A significant event had occurred in 1941, when Atanasoff received a colleague, John W. Mauchly, into his home as a guest. Mauchly had expressed great interest in the work Atanasoff was doing relating to computer technology and had enthusiastically accepted Atanasoff's invitation. It is important to ask exactly what transpired during this visit between Atanasoff and Mauchly, since the events that resulted from the time they spent together are now etched in history. The facts were examined in detail at a judicial hearing 26 years later, when the courts had to decide whether John W. Mauchly and John P. Eckert had unlawfully made use of Atanasoff's invention when they developed the ENIAC computer between 1942 and 1946. Before this time, the ENIAC had been recognized as the first electronic computer, but the facts of the case would prove otherwise. The following facts were established during the court hearings:
  1. J. Mauchly had stayed as a guest at Atanasoff's home in Ames from June 13 to June 18, 1941.
  2. During that stay, Mauchly spent many hours discussing the Atanasoff-Berry computer and computer theory with John Atanasoff and Cliff Berry.
  3. For three or four days, Mauchly accompanied Atanasoff to his office in the physics building at Iowa State University and observed the Atanasoff-Berry computer in the presence of both Atanasoff and Berry.
  4. Mauchly had also watched demonstrations of the operations of the computer, or at least viewed some phases of the Atanasoff-Berry computer functioning. Mauchly may also have been engaged in the manipulation of some parts of the computer in the company of Clifford Berry.
  5. Mauchly was allowed to read 35 pages of a manuscript describing the design and operation of the Atanasoff-Berry computer. Atanasoff and Berry had benevolently answered all of Mauchly's questions and had conducted many detailed discussions with him related to the computer and the manuscript. Atanasoff had, however, rejected Mauchly's request to take a copy of the manuscript with him to Pennsylvania.
  6. Immediately after meeting with Atanasoff in June, Mauchly had written letters to both Atanasoff and to another friend, Helms Clayton, expressing his enthusiasm for the Atanasoff-Berry computer. Mauchly subsequently attended a crash course in electronics at Pennsylvania University.
  7. On August 15, 1941, Mauchly wrote a comprehensive summary of the differences between analog and digital computing devices. The summary included ideas that were almost identical to those found in Atanasoff's manuscript relating to the Atanasoff-Berry computer.
  8. On September 30, 1941, Mauchly wrote to Atanasoff, proposing that the two of them develop a computer jointly. Mauchly also asked whether Atanasoff would mind if he used some of Atanasoff's ideas in a computer that he himself was intending to build.
On October 19, 1973, Judge Earl R. Larson made public his ruling on the ENIAC case. According to the US statutory judicial procedure, Justice Larson issued a court ruling on the merits of the evidence, a summation, and a court verdict, which resulted in a total of 420 pages of material. The court verdict said: "With this Verdict the Court has ruled that the Patent of ENIAC - US Patent, Serial No. 3 120 606, issued to the Illinois Scientific Developments Incorporated, is hereby declared null and void." Thus, the US Patent of what had been considered the first digital computer in history was declared null and void. The significance of the judge's ruling, which was based on a chronological examination of the events, provided irrefutable proof of the great achievement made by Atanasoff and Berry in developing an electronic digital computer before December 1940. Judge Larson noted that the advanced stage of the Atanasoff-Berry computer was established beyond reasonable doubt, and that it was not just an opinion on behalf of Atanasoff or the Administration officials of the State of Iowa, but the learned opinion of independent experts. These experts had made their own observations and tests of the Atanasoff - Berry Computer in addition to reviewing the research and development plans that Atanasoff had produced in the period between 1939 and 1942.

The Federal Judge ruled that Mauchly derived the basic ideas for an electronic digital computer from the Atanasoff-Berry computer. He also ruled that John Atanasoff and Clifford Berry were the first to have constructed an electronic digital computer at the Iowa State College in the years between 1939 and 1942. In addition, the judge ruled that John Mauchly and John Eckert, who had for over 25 years been the recipients of recognition and admiration as co-inventors of the first electronic digital computer, had, in fact, lost all rights to the patent upon which all of the praise had been based. "Eckert and Mauchly had not invented the first automated electronic digital computer, but had derived the basic ideas for it by John Atanasoff." (Excerpt of the Summation of the Court in Minneapolis, 1973).


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