Given all the rampant gadget patenting that goes on in the computer industry, it's peculiar that computers themselves never got patented. But it wasn't for lack of trying. Here's the twisted tale of one of the longest patent battles in recent history.

When we think of the computer's inventor, we most often probably think of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace's Difference and Analytical Engines, or even the ancient Antikythera. Yet there is little or no direct connection between those early calculating machines and the antecedents of the modern computer developed in the 1940s.

Historian I.B. Cohen identifies three types of devices that converged in the first general-purpose computers: "early calculating machines, statistical machines, and logical automata." The first of the general purpose machines is assumed, by most people, to be the ENIAC.

Why Was the Computer Never Patented?

ENIAC with programmers Glen Beck and Becky Snyder

The ENIAC, for "Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer" was constructed at the University of Pennsylvania's Moore School of Engineering, under a contract from the U.S. Army, signed in 1943.

During and immediately after the war, the Army requested additional machines and the EDVAC (Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer) was begun, also at the Moore School, based on a "logical design" (pdf) by John von Neumann. Within this design was the idea for the stored program. Von Neumann "suggested that the instructions for the computer—always before entered on punched paper tape, or by plugboards—could be stored in the computer's electronic memory and treated in exactly the same manner as numerical data."

Why Was the Computer Never Patented?

John von Neumann with the Institute for Advanced Study Computer

Developed for calculating artillery firing tables, the ENIAC was, almost incidentally, the first general-purpose automatic computer, and was used in the 1940s for weather prediction, atomic energy calculations, cosmic ray studies, thermal ignition, random-number studies, and wind-tunnel design. With the addition of the capacity to store programs, a capacity articulated by von Neumann, and the utilization of binary logic rather than decimal, the computer "architecture" attributed to von Neumann was widely disseminated in the late 1940s and reproduced in different iterations by institutions and corporations. This dissemination produced the familiar acronymed machines associated with this first generation of modern computers: ENIAC, EDVAC, EDSAC, ILLIAC, MANIAC, and UNIVAC.

The Longest Patent Trial in History

After the war, J. Presper Eckert and John W. Mauchly, who had supervised the ENIAC's construction, applied for a patent and formed their own computer company. Filed in 1947, the patent was not granted until 1964. Bell Labs, among others, challenged Eckert and Mauchly, whose company had been acquired by Sperry Rand after barely escaping bankruptcy due to intense competition from other early computer companies, especially IBM.

Sperry Rand, meanwhile, began pressuring competitors to license the ENIAC design at a fee of 1.5% of sale, or be charged with violation of the patent. IBM settled with Sperry Rand for $10 million, but Honeywell and others sued.

After what was the longest trial in the federal court to date, beginning in 1967 and concluding in 1973, during which 77 witnesses testified, and in which almost 33,000 objects were entered into evidence, including Charles Babbage's autobiography, Judge Earl Larson invalidated Eckert and Mauchly's patent on four grounds:

First, that the patent had been filed more than a year after the machine had been put to use. Second, that von Neumann's "First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC" constituted prior publication. Third, that Eckert and Mauchly's attorneys had engaged in misconduct by deliberately delaying the patenting process, hoping to put off the day the patent took effect and thus increasing its financial value to Sperry Rand. And fourth, and most damaging of all, that Eckert and Mauchly "did not themselves first invent the automatic electronic digital computer, but instead derived that subject matter from one Dr. John Vincent Atanasoff."

Mauchly had, Larson concluded, adopted some ideas from the ABC, the Atanasoff-Berry Computer, which Mauchly had viewed on a trip to Iowa State University in 1941.

The ABC (a title which was designated as part of the judicial proceedings, which the device had not had before) was electronic, although a special-purpose device with unreliable operation, and not automatic. It was also not "Turing complete." It was reconstruced in the courtroom as part of the proceedings, a presentation which might have served to convince Judge Larson of its priority, as he was not, himself, familiar with computers.

Why Was the Computer Never Patented?

The ABC

Furthermore, at the time of the trial, Atanasoff had long since given up his efforts to construct a computer, leaving Iowa State for work with the Navy during World War II. It was only during the preparation for Honeywell v. Sperry Rand that lawyers contacted Atanasoff and requested he reconstruct his computer.

Recognizing Atanasoff

So while the consensus tends to be that Eckert and Mauchly, along with von Neumann, were responsible for the genesis of modern computing, Atanasoff maintains a few enthusiastic proponents. John Burks, who worked on the ENIAC, and his wife Alice Rowe Burks, who was a "computer" (when that term meant a human, often female, person performing calculations) in the early 1940s, have argued passionately for Atanasoff's recognition, and they have enlisted Gödel, Escher, Bach author Douglas Hoftadter. Novelist Jane Smiley is also an Atanasoff partisan and has written a biography, The Man Who Invented the Computer.

In fact, most accounts agree that the ENIAC and its successor the EDVAC are the first modern computers, that they combined the capacity to store programs with general purpose use and digital technology for the first time. This combination represents the modern epoch of the computer. And as little as Atanasoff is known, Eckert and Mauchly also receive very little recognition. The ones who history remembers have tended to be those responsible for the theory: Alan Turing and John von Neumann are the most significant innovators of the modern computer, while Babbage and Lovelace remain its grandparents. The modern computer, the ENIAC demonstrates, is the product of several inventions and ideas, which were circulating widely among scientists during and after WWII.

A consequence of the trial is that the computer began and remained a device within the public domain. Because the von Neumann architecture had been widely disseminated so early, the seeds of modern computer design were planted all over, on both sides of the Atlantic.

So, finally, nobody owns the intellectual property of the computer.

Why Was the Computer Never Patented?

Further Reading:

A Computer Perspective

Who Invented the Computer?

The Man Who Invented the Computer