GUY RAZ, host:
And now, to another lesser-known story in American history: If you have an iPhone or a laptop or an android or any other computer, actually, you can think bourbon, as in the whiskey. One night in December of 1937, a physics professor from Iowa State College named John Vincent Atanasoff was stumped. He was trying to figure out how to solve big equations faster. So...
Ms. JANE SMILEY (Author, "The Man Who Invented the Computer: The Biography of John Atanasoff, Digital Pioneer"): He got in his car, which was a nice new car, and he drove east from Iowa State.
RAZ: And while he was driving, he was thinking about an easier way to solve those big equations.
Ms. SMILEY: Iowa was dry at the time, and he saw a sign once he crossed the river into Illinois that indicated that he could get a drink. So he went in and he sat down and he ordered himself a drink.
RAZ: A bourbon and soda to be exact. And that's when the idea came to him: a machine that could solve equations, a computer. As the story goes, he sketched out his ideas on how to build it on the back of a napkin and then he jumped in his car and drove home, 70 miles, back to Iowa.
Ms. SMILEY: Whether he actually wrote about them on a napkin, nobody knows, but they came to him so forcefully that he maybe didn't need to write about them on a napkin. He just went home and found himself a graduate student and put it together.
RAZ: That's Jane Smiley. She wrote about this forgotten inventor in a new book. It's called "The Man Who Invented the Computer: The Biography of John Atanasoff, Digital Pioneer."
Now, four ideas came to Atanasoff in that Illinois bar. And remember, this is 1937. So, the first idea...
Ms. SMILEY: It would operate electronically.
RAZ: The second...
Ms. SMILEY: It would use a binary numeration, which is...
RAZ: One through zero. Yeah.
Ms. SMILEY: ...zero, one, zero, one, zero, one.
Ms. SMILEY: It would use a little thing called a capacitor, which is a little bit like a battery.
RAZ: And finally...
Ms. SMILEY: The fourth principle was computing by counting rather than by measuring.
RAZ: And within a few years, Atanasoff's bourbon-fueled idea became known as the Atanasoff-Berry Computer, the very first electronic computer. So why does hardly anyone know about John Atanasoff?
Ms. SMILEY: After the war, a man named John Mauchly, who had visited Atanasoff, learned all about the computer and gone back to Philadelphia where he was from and commenced to invent a new computer called ENIAC using three of Atanasoff's principles, which he learned from Atanasoff. Then Mauchly became known as the inventor of the computer.
In the 1950s and 1960s, it became clear that maybe the ideas behind ENIAC were not original. And so a case was brought in the late-'60s and decided in 1973 about who actually invented the computer. Unfortunately, the results of the case came out the day that the Watergate tapes came out. And whatever was going on with the computer was just lost in that...
RAZ: But that case determined that he was the inventor of the computer?
Ms. SMILEY: Yes, it did.
RAZ: John Atanasoff never saw a dime from his invention, though he got wealthy from his other work. And the story isn't unique among inventors. He was a genius, he invented a world-changing device, somewhat appropriated those ideas and he died in obscurity.
Ms. SMILEY: And that's, I think, the reason the computer has become so ubiquitous because nobody owns or ever owned the idea.
Ms. SMILEY: That's Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley. Her new book is called "The Man Who Invented the Computer: The Biography of John Atanasoff, Digital Pioneer."