Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Smiley (Private Life, 2010, etc.) looks at the curious personalities and tortured paths that led to the first computer(s).
As in her novels, the author displays a talent for keeping a dozen fully realized characters on stage. While John Atanasoff is certainly a likely candidate for “the man who invented the computer,” plenty of strange, captivating people were concurrently at play in the same field. “The story of the invention of the computer,” writes Smiley, “is a story of how a general need is met by idiosyncratic minds, a story of how a thing that exists is a thing that could have easily existed in another way, or, indeed, not existed at all.” But it did exist, and in permutations galore, the brainchildren of a host of atypical men: geniuses, cranks, the impossibly remote, the backroom dealer. The author provides vivid characterizations of each: Atanasoff, enterprising, hardworking and so highly directed that he could have been an Asperger’s candidate; Alan Turing, a computer visionary who couldn’t build a birdhouse; Konrad Zuse, a German reduced to scavenging pieces of material for his machine from the bombed-out streets of Berlin “without getting shot for looting”; John von Neumann, who contributed important architectural features to computer design and whose upper-class connections allowed him great freedom. Smiley captures the men in their evolving milieus—at universities and in war rooms and business offices—and notes that they sometimes came into contact. One example was the meeting between Atanasoff and John Mauchly, another computer designer, a brief encounter in which Atanasoff revealed the workings of his machine, and ultimately led to the patent case that was found in Atanasoff’s favor as the inventor of the first “automatic electronic digital computer for solving large systems of simultaneous linear equations.”
Engrossing. Smiley takes science history and injects it with a touch of noir and an exciting clash of vanities.