At a little-noted White House ceremony Nov. 13, President Bush stepped off the platform to present a National Medal of Technology to an 87-year-old man named John V. Atanasoff whose work has changed the world, but whose recognition for it has been long and hard in coming.
Atanasoff, said the program for the ceremony, was being honored "for his invention of the electronic digital computer." But if you look in many reference works, you will find the credit for inventing the first computer given to others. The truth has now prevailed, but not without a struggle that has lasted many decades.
The saga began on a bitterly cold night in 1937, when Atanasoff, then a professor at Iowa State University, was struggling to devise a computing machine to help solve problems in higher mathematics. To clear his mind, he went for a long drive in his Ford sedan.
He ended up more than 200 miles away, just across the border in Illinois. Before turning back, he stopped in a tavern for a drink -- something not available in Iowa in those days. It was there that Atanasoff conceived the technology that would allow him to build the first computer.
He could not have imagined then the astonishingly powerful desktop systems in everyday use today, made possible by the invention much later of the silicon microchip. But even today's personal computers are based on the technology that clicked in his mind over a bourbon in an Illinois roadhouse that night.
The machine he envisioned was startlingly different from anything conceived before. For example, it would be electronically operated and would use base-two (binary) numbers, instead of the traditional base-10 numbers. By 1940, with the help of a talented graduate student, Clifford Berry, Atanasoff had developed a crude prototype of an electronic computer. The next year, while he and Berry continued to work on it, an interested visitor came to see Atanasoff and his machine.
His name was John Mauchly, a physicist at Ursinus College outside Philadelphia. Atanasoff had met him at a professional conference and the two had talked about the Iowa professor's work. Mauchly stayed several days, a guest in Atanasoff's home, and received an extensive briefing and a demonstration of the computing machine housed in the basement of the physics building at Iowa State.
Atanasoff's wife, Lura, was suspicious of Mauchly, and warned her husband, who was seeking a patent for his device, that he was revealing too much about it. But the professor, a trusting soul, was not worried. He should have been, as he found to his dismay just a few years later.
The lawyers charged with seeking a patent for Atanasoff's machine, under the impression Iowa State had lost interest in the project, never applied for one. In the meantime, Mauchly and a colleague, Presper Eckert, were hard at work developing a computer of their own for the U.S. Army. In 1946, the Army unveiled ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer). It was a major breakthrough and ENIAC went into the record books as the first digital computer. Full credit for it went to Mauchly and Eckert, who were granted a patent on it.
Mauchly had told Atanasoff privately that he was working on a computer, but that it was nothing like Atanasoff's. That assertion turned out to be false, but the process of establishing that didn't really start until 20 years later with a book by an Iowa State graduate. It traced the basic technology of the by-then booming field of digital computers to the Atanasoff-Berry machine at Iowa State.
That, in turn, led Honeywell Co. to challenge in court the Mauchly-Eckert patent, which was by then owned by another giant corporation, Sperry Rand. The case went to trial in 1971. It took 135 days and before it was over it was clear that Mauchly had relied heavily on what he had learned on his visit to Iowa, despite his sworn pretrial testimony to the contrary. The judge invalidated the Mauchly patent, ruling it was "derived" from Atanasoff's work.
That decision, legally confirming Atanasoff as the inventor of the computer, might have gathered dust in the court files had not the cause been taken up by veteran crusading journalist and native Iowan Clark Mollenhoff. His 1988 book, "Atanasoff, Forgotten Father of the Computer," tells the whole story. Mollenhoff was in the audience at the White House as Atanasoff received his award.
Brit Hume is a contributor to the Washington Post Writers Group. He is chief ABC News White House correspondent and the founding editor of a computer newsletter.