Patent/Court Case

Honeywell vs. Sperry Rand

Read the official decision by Judge Larson concerning JVA as inventor of the first electronic digital computer!

In late 1966 or early 1967, patent lawyer Charles G. Call was summoned to the office of senior partner D. Dennis Allegretti and asked him if he would be interested on taking a case which might take ten years of his time. Call, eager to demonstrate his talents, accepted. Allegretti explained that the client was the Honeywell Company of Minneapolis and the case involved a controversy with the Sperry Rand Corporation over what was generally called the "ENIAC PATENTS." Sperry Rand and its subsidiary corporation, Illinois Scientific Development, Incorporated, had purchased those patent rights from John W. Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert, Jr. Call was somewhat familiar with the earlier litigation involving the ENIAC patents, for that patent challenge had been brought and fought by Bell Telephone Laboratories against Sperry Rand at a time when Call was employed by Bell.

U.S. District Judge Archie Dawson had upheld the validity of Sperry Rand's ENIAC patents in his 1962 decision on grounds that Bell Telephone Laboratories had failed to produce sufficient evidence of "prior public use" of ENIAC ideas. It would be an uphill battle for Honeywell to get another court to take any action that would upset Judge Dawson's decision, and Call and Allegretti recognized that point. Allegretti said Honeywell's lawyers had some new evidence that was related to the ENIAC patents and also some antitrust theories for attacking Sperry Rand under the Sherman Act and Clayton Act. It was a tremendous challenge in the face of Judge Dawson's decision for Sperry Rand, but Honeywell lawyers had assured Allegretti that there would be virtually no limitation on the expenditures they could make in following leads that might unearth facts or law to break the ENIAC patents.

Call buried himself in research and reading on the ENIAC patents. The reading and rereading of the standard histories of computingat the time all ended with the same conclusion: The first electronic digital computer was invented by John W. Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert, Jr., at the University of Pennsylvania. The only challenges to this claim were from some of Mauchly and Eckert's Moore School colleagues who believed that they had wrongfully claimed credit for inventions and innovations that had gone into the construction of ENIAC and had been the work of others on the staff. These people were eager to be helpful and obviously hoped to establish credit for themselves in the process.

It was decided that Charles Call would be the lawyer representative for Honeywell and that Allen Kirkpatrick would do the early interview and deposition work for Control Data.

In January 1968 Atanasoff proceeded with the pretrial project of having his electronics experts at his Frederick, Maryland, plant construct a replica of the prototype computer he and Cliff Berry had constructed more than twenty-five years earlier at Iowa State College. Atanasoff was excited about the project in which he could establish clearly that sketches, ideas, and plans he had made available to Mauchly in June 1941 could be used to construct a prototype electronic digital computer. Presentation of such a machine in court would seriously challenge Mauchly's contention that he didn't learn anything from his examination of the Atanasoff Berry Computer, his examination of the plans, or his conversations with Atanasoff or Cliff Berry.

In the summer of 1968 lawyers for Honeywell and Control Data issued subpoenas for all the relevant records from the files of Sperry Rand, IBM, and the Moore School of Electrical Engineering, as well as any personal records that might be in the possession of Mauchly or Eckert related to the ENIAC or EDVAC projects. They also sought to depose all witnesses whose testimony would support the credibility of Atanasoff or challenge or contradict Mauchly.

United States District Judge Earl Richard Larson came to an early conclusion that the Honeywell case against Sperry Rand would be a long and complicated one, and that it would consume essentially all of the time of one of the U.S. District judges in Minnesota for a period of at least a year. However, at the time the case jurisdiction was finally established in Minnesota, Judge Larson did not suspect that the litigation would continue for nearly five years and be one of the longest cases in the history of the federal courts in the United States. Judge Larson, fifty-eight years old at the time he took jurisdiction of the case, was accustomed to hard work and to making tough and difficult decisions. His excellent physical condition and his whole background made him an almost ideal judge to try this long and complicated case.

Following up on their responsibility to produce witnesses and evidence to aid Judge Larson in understanding the technical concepts and computer jargon, the Honeywell lawyers looked for expert witnesses with solid credentials. Charles G. Call consulted with the law firm's senior partner, D. Dennis Allegretti, and the Minneapolis trial lawyer, Henry Halladay, and it was decided that they should hire the Philadelphia computer consultant's firm, Auerbach Associates. Auerbach Associates was headed by Isaac Auerbach, who was the chairman of the panel that Charles Call had seen put Mauchly on the spot in August 1967 by suggesting that Mauchly explain his trip to Iowa State College in 1941 to examine the Atanasoff Berry Computer. Isaac Auerbach had worked with Mauchly and Eckert on ENIAC and EDVAC and had considerable personal knowledge about those computer projects.

Dr. Atanasoff as Key Witness

Read JVA's deposition for the court (1252 page pdf)

John Vincent Atanasoff was a well-prepared witness by the time U.S. District Judge Earl R. Larson started the trial on 1 June 1971. By the time Honeywell Attorney Halladay had taken JVA through his work as a teaching assistant, assistant professor, and associate professor at Iowa State, and his Ph.D. thesis at the University of Wisconsin, there was no doubt about his qualifications as a mathematician, electrical engineer, and theoretical physicist. The titles of the theses written by students under Atanasoff's guidance and the papers he himself had written left no doubt about his long-time interest in developing a method of computing that would improve the best calculators being produced in the 1920s and the 1930s.

It was late in the afternoon on his first day on the witness stand that Atanasoff spelled out for Judge Larson the story of the winter night in 1937 when he pulled it all together. He reported that within a few weeks of the drive to the Illinois roadhouse he started to design circuits and attempted to realize the two concepts he had envisioned. "The regenerative condensers system was solved first," Atanasoff testified. He testified that by 24 March 1939 he had his concepts for an electronic digital computer worked out on paper and approved by the Physics Department of Iowa State College for submission to Iowa State College Research Council with a request for research funds. Honeywell lawyer Halladay submitted the 24 March 1939 letter of two pages of the Department of Physics for identification. Atanasoff was then asked to identify an 18 May 1939 letter from Professor E. W. Lindstrom notifying Atanasoff of the $650 research grant and Atanasoff's 23 May 1939 reply thanking Professor Linstrom.

During Atanasoff's first day on the witness stand, Honeywell Lawyer Halladay established with written records and full corroboration that Atanasoff had conceptualized the major elements of an electronic digital computer with a base-two operational mode, with regenerative memory, and with logic circuits as early as 1939.

On the third full day of testimony Halladay systematically presented all of the correspondence Atanasoff had during 1939 and 1940 with Dr. R. E. Buchanan and Dr. Jay W. Woodrow in getting his computer project approved, and all of the correspondence with Dr. Samuel H. Caldwell of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Warren Weaver of the Rockefeller Foundation, and Howard A. Poillon, president of The Research Corporation. These men had knowledge of the planning, financing, and development of the Atanasoff Berry Computer through their official positions in analyzing and approving the research grants.

In a letter to his meteorologist friend H. Helms Clayton dated 28 June 1941 Mauchly had told of his trip to Iowa State and had expressed enthusiasm over the computing machine he had observed. Sperry Rand Lawyer Ferrill argued that it was hearsay and irrelevant communication to a person not involved in the litigation.

On Monday, 21 June, Lawyer Halladay moved Atanasoff through testimony on his first meeting with Mauchly at the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) meeting in late December 1940, and through identification of his correspondence with Mauchly in January, February, March, April, and May of 1941 as a prelude to Mauchly's visit.

"Now, I remember Monday morning, I took Dr. Mauchly and we went over first thing in the morning and went in to see the machine," Atanasoff testified. "Clifford Berry was there and there may have been one or two other people in the room at the same time, and Clifford and Mauchly immediately went into discussion of the various details of the machine. During the morning I took pains to show him a copy of a document I have here before me," Atanasoff said and identified a 35-page booklet with a green cover describing the Atanasoff Berry Computer construction and concepts with hand-sketched drawings he had completed in August 1940. "He had a copy of this document while he was visiting and asked me if he could take it back with him. I told him I preferred that he did not and he did not take it back, to the best of my knowledge and belief."

He told the court he had observed Mauchly reading his manuscript at length, although he could not state what parts of the green booklet Mauchly had read. "One subject we discussed was the carry mechanism. I explained the meaning of this and I told him he could follow through for himself how the thing worked. He certainly understood the general features of the device." A short time later, Lawyer Halladay introduced into the record Mauchly's typed manuscript entitled "Notes on Electrical Calculating Devices," It was written by Mauchly in August 1941, only a few weeks after he was tutored by Atanasoff and Cliff Berry on the operation and construction of the Atanasoff Berry Computer.

By the end of Atanasoff's testimony, Halladay had established that the date on the green-covered booklet on that Atanasoff Berry Computer was 14 August 1940, and there was no doubt in Atanasoff's mind that "the date of the conception, the roadhouse event" was the winter of 1937-38 rather than the winter of 1938-39. Halladay obtained specific confirmation from Atanasoff under oath that he had explained to Mauchly the base-two number system, the process of solving linear simultaneous equations, the timing mechanisms and synchronization of the ABC, the capacitor memories and readers, a one-cycle switch, the circuits and devices for automatic operation, and the subject of ring counter and racheting and the logic circuits.

As JVA and his wife Alice left Minneapolis to return to their Maryland farm home, they were satisfied that the work done by the Honeywell and Control Data legal teams had put together a monumental amount of documentation that established the Atanasoff Berry Computer's place in computer history. It was a record beyond the reach and resources of what any computer historian could compile at any later time.

Dr. Mauchly's Turn

Under questioning by Sperry Rand Lawyer DeLone, Mauchly told about his education and career from his days at McKinley Technical High School where he was so precocious in science and mathematics that he was frequently left to teach the class. He was named to the National Honor Society in high school and he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa as a result of his academic record at the Johns Hopkins University, where he was awarded a Ph.D. in physics in 1932. He testified that he started college as a student of electrical engineering but had by-passed the Bachelor and Master's degree programs and went directly to the Ph.D. in physics. It was a distinguished academic record.

Mauchly's early deposition testimony was vague as to whether he had seen the Atanasoff Berry Computer with the cover off, and as to whether he had ever seen it in operation during his visit to Ames, Iowa. That testimony proved impossible to sustain throughout the trial. The same was true relative to his initial deposition testimony that he had never examined the Atanasoff Berry machine in detail and had never had Atanasoff's 35-page green computer booklet in his possession.

Mauchly was asked to identify several devices: a harmonic analyzer, a cryptographic device, and another device which his lawyer, DeLone, thought explained Mauchly's early concept of a binary counter planned while he was at Ursinus College and in the months before he met Atanasoff. In addition, he was asked to identify papers containing rough sketches of circuits that were undated or dated in January 1941 and before June 1941. Mauchly identified these papers to demonstrate evidence that he was thinking in terms of an electronic digital calculating device and did not derive his ideas from his contacts with Atanasoff.

At the trial, Mauchly abandoned his early position that he had seen Atanasoff's machine only in a very poor light and with the cover on. He identified a picture of the external appearance of the machine taken in May 1941 as depicting the Atanasoff Berry Computer that he saw at Iowa State. Now Mauchly, who had testified he could not remember Clifford Berry, had a clear recollection that Cliff Berry was present at some demonstrations of the operation of the computer machine. But he continued to contend that he had learned nothing new about electronic digital computing after viewing the machine.

Mauchly declared that the Atanasoff Berry Computer was "a special class, not a general class.... His machine was specifically deliberately constructed with the idea that when finished it would solve simultaneous linear algebraic equations, which is a very special class of problems.... My interest was in trying for a versatile machine."

By the end of his testimony and cross-examination, Mauchly did confirm the following points:

  1. He spent from 13 June 1941 to the morning of 18 June 1941 as a guest in Atanasoff's home in Ames.
  2. During this period as Atanasoff's guest he spent uncounted hours in discussions of the Atanasoff Berry Computer and computer theory with John Atanasoff and Clifford Berry.
  3. On three or four days he accompanied Atanasoff to his office in the Physics Building and observed the Atanasoff Berry Computer in the company of Atanasoff and Clifford Berry.
  4. He had seen demonstrations of the operations or some phases of the functions of the Atanasoff Berry Computer and might have engaged in manipulation of some parts of the machine with Clifford Berry.
  5. He was permitted to read Atanasoff's 35-page manuscript on the construction and operation of the Atanasoff Berry Computer from cover to cover and probably did read it. Atanasoff and Berry had willingly answered questions and entered into discussions with him about the machine and the booklet, but Atanasoff had refused to let him take a copy to Pennsylvania.
  6. Immediately after his visit to Iowa State in June, Mauchly had written letters to Atanasoff and to his meteorologist friend, Helms Clayton, expressing enthusiasm about the Atanasoff Berry Computer and had taken a crash course in electronics at the University of Pennsylvania.
  7. On 15 August 1941 he wrote a comprehensive memorandum on the difference between analog calculators and pulse devices that incorporated some ideas that were almost identical with those in Atanasoff's 35-page manuscript on the ABC.
  8. On 30 September 1941 he had written to Atanasoff suggesting a cooperative effort to develop an Atanasoff computer and had asked if Atanasoff had any objection to him using some of the Atanasoff concepts in a computer machine that he was considering building.

Before leaving the witness chair, Mauchly had confirmed the following points on the December 1940 meeting with Atanasoff:

  • The meeting lasted between twenty and thirty minutes and had in a general way touched upon the general operation of the ABC that was under construction at Iowa State College.
  • The discussions dealt with Atanasoff's "pulse" principle (electronic digital computing) as opposed to the "analog" or mechanical principles of the Bush differential analyzer that had been built by Vannevar Bush at MIT. Atanasoff had refused to discuss more details of the computer but promised to explain his theories in detail if Mauchly would visit Iowa State.
  • Mauchly was "excited" about the prospect of the visit to Iowa State and the possibility of seeing what he believed was an electronic computer that would perform faster than the Bush differential analyzer and could be constructed for "$2 per digit unit."

The Verdict

The trial that started on 1 June 1971 consumed over 135 days or parts of days. A total of seventy-seven witnesses had given oral testimony, and an additional eighty witnesses were presented through deposition transcripts. The first indication of Judge Larson's decision came in April 1973, after he provided lawyers for Honeywell and Sperry Rand copies of a proposed decision and asked for their comments on that decision. That tentative decision was leaked to the Minneapolis Tribune and Star and staff writer Bob Lundegaard wrote an exclusive story for the 12 April 1973 newspaper stating that Judge Larson had ruled that the basic ENIAC patents held by Sperry Rand were invalid.

When Judge Larson distributed the formal opinion on 19 October 1973, it was everything that Atanasoff had hoped it would be. It was clear and unequivocal finding that Mauchly's basic ENIAC ideas were "derived from Atanasoff, and the invention claimed in ENIAC was derived from Atanasoff." In extensive findings, Judge Larson declared: "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."

The timing of the publication of the decision on 19 October 1973 brought it into competition with the explosive "Saturday Night Massacre" in the continuing Watergate scandal of the Richard Nixon presidency. That particular story would have reduced the display on any other story that night. However, that does not adequately explain the ignoring of a story that was of great significance to the world of science--mathematics, physics, and the rest of the world influenced by and vitally interested in computer science.