Who Gets the Credit? 

 

Most paternity suits over inventions and ideas are matters of judgment and of degree. Of course, readers and audiences like clear cut stories of little guy inventors versus big, thieving corporations, stories with triumphant, stand-up-and-cheer courtroom verdict scenes. There are some in real life, but lots of inventions—the telephone and television, and in this post, lasers and computers—had several near-simultaneous inventors with competing patent claims. Fighting and negotiating those claims—to academic promotions, to prestige, to big money, and to lasting fame—has a long history.

The two accepted genres of laser history are: Gordon Gould invented it in his attic, had his 1957 notebook notarized, and spent 30 years fighting to Stop the Steal. The other genre is, eminent scientist Charles Townes leads Bell Labs in a brilliant collective effort to imagine the laser into existence, despite the sad later efforts of gadflies with dubious prior claims to its invention. What are the essential features of a laser? As Hannibal Lecter might say, first things, Clarice. One guy’s claim has essential features 1,2,4,6, and 9. The other one, the winning application, has features 1,2,3,5,7, and 8. It’s like a Hollywood lawsuit: At what exact point does a generic idea become a copyrightable original one? What standards apply?

Laser, by Nick Taylor, feels reasonably trustworthy. Unlike other authors addressing the case, he wisely acknowledges that there were a lot of people working on the idea of an optical maser that would act as a hyper-dazzling focused light amplifier; this “lone inventor” stuff needs to be taken with a grain of salt. The only sorta-semi cases of lone wolf 20th century invention that I’m personally acquainted with are, coincidentally, related to uses of light: Polaroid, Xerox, and Kodachrome.

Taylor is mostly sympathetic to Gordon Gould, a colorful, gifted and troubled character, but he points out serious flaws in Gould’s patent application, and in some of the strategies he and his lawyers used to try to invalidate Bell Labs’ patent. Cases like this can turn into zero-sum games: it’s not enough to show that I came up with the idea first; when you do get the idea, I’ll accuse you of outright stealing it from me. The idea that the well-funded, well-established, fully documented Townes laser program stole the idea from Gould’s handful of handwritten notes doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, then or now.

But there’s still that one nagging fact, that one blinking light on history’s instrument panel: By luck, happenstance, whatever, he hit on a workable scheme to make a laser the year before Townes did. That’s a fact that doesn’t go away, and a quarter century later, Gordon Gould was recognized in court as at least the co-inventor of the laser. By that point, it was more than a symbolic victory; even a small, mandated slice of laser revenues harvested millions.

Let’s look at the case of ENIAC, the first general purpose electronic computer. To set the scene: Ages before Silicon Valley, or even Boston’s Route 128, the Philadelphia area was a major center of America’s electronics industry. It was the home of Philco, the country’s largest radio manufacturer, and across the river in New Jersey, of Philco’s biggest rival, RCA and its factories in nearby Camden. The University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school, responded to this hive of regional activity with nationally admired programs in the Moore School of Electrical Engineering.

During WWII, college teacher John Mauchly and his friend, Penn engineer Presper Eckert, proposed that the school host the long construction process of their War Department-funded project, ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), a super-calculator with no moving parts. It would do jobs like recalculating complex artillery firing tables of launch angles, weight, muzzle velocity, and wind speed. They hoped it could also do things like improve weather predictions. Eckert and Mauchly were joined by Army liaison Herman Goldstine, who got them the funding, and together they built the computer. Starting from scratch in fall 1943, by the beginning of the summer of 1944 the physical framework was filling in and the first computations made. (There have been plenty of good books about computer history, but IMHO the best single one about this moment in time is Scott McCartney’s starkly titled ENIAC.)

A small crew of programmers learned to operate the machine, many of them women with a math background who’d been recruited for wartime jobs. The war ended before ENIAC had a chance to make an impact, but its significance for postwar civilian work was recognized right away when the Army publicly announced its “electronic super brain” at a headline-grabbing unveiling in February 1946.

That’s when a hasty, informal set of wartime provisional partnerships started falling apart, and the fights over credit for the invention broke out. The one partnership that didn’t waver under pressure, then or (apparently) ever was the core one between Pres Eckert and John Mauchly. They were and remained the inventors of record on the patent. There was some resentment on the part of their nominal boss, Herman Goldstine, and their top-ranking technical deputy, Arthur Burks, that they weren’t listed as co-inventors, and that’s perfectly normal. There often isn’t a hard and fast rule, and sometimes it’s more subjective than ideal. In the sciences, the patent was widely accepted as fair.

Moore School administrators had come to regret the generous patent rights deal that Penn gave the ENIAC team in 1943, but those rights didn’t necessarily extend to the greatly revised Mark II machine already in progress, EDVAC. It would work at much higher speed, with only a quarter of the vacuum tubes, and had advanced features like mercury delay lines for short-term storage, making it closer to a modern computer.

Penn unwisely gave Eckert and Mauchly an ultimatum: sign over their future patent rights to the school. Deadline: today at 5. Instead, unsurprisingly, they quit on the spot, going off to start the first of many such startups in the brand-new computer industry, Eckert-Mauchly Computer Company.  Goldstine and Burks, still miffed, stuck with the university, finished EDVAC, and went off to Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies. In 1949, the Eckert-Mauchly team made the first sales of a new design, UNIVAC, a name so widely and instantly popular in the Fifties that, like brand names Kleenex and Xerox, it came to be synonymous with its entire category.

It may seem strange that the pioneers of the entire industry never pocketed so much as a thousandth of what later tech creators did, but there was no precedent for Jobs or Gates, for Ellison or Zuckerberg. Not in 1949. By mid-century standards, Pres Eckert and John Mauchly did very well for themselves. The inventors assigned their patent rights to EMCC—the only way they could capitalize their new company—and when they sold the company, piece by piece, what they were selling was control of the patent. The new owners, Remington Rand, merged with Sperry Gyroscope. Sperry needed access to some IBM patents, and IBM needed the Eckert-Mauchly patents, so the two formed a secret pact. And there, things rested for nearly a decade.

Until Honeywell saw a legal opening to blow the cartel apart. Their attorneys dug up the forgotten claims of John Atanasoff, an Iowa college teacher and early computer experimenter who Mauchly visited and corresponded with. The Atanasoff-Berry Computer, as they later dubbed it, was no more than a “breadboard,” on about the scale of a science fair project. It didn’t operate, and even if it had worked, it had no ability to execute an If…Then instruction. It had one feature that was more advanced than the vastly larger, more complex ENIAC, though: it was binary—in the 1940s, the wave of computing’s future. So was EDVAC, but one didn’t necessarily follow from another.

In October 1973, a judge made the momentous declaration that John Atanasoff was the inventor of the computer, and the Eckert-Mauchly patents, though still valid, were unenforceable. For a few years, the David-vs-Goliath aspect of the feud caught the public’s sympathy. But then, slowly, the opinions of the field reasserted themselves. Atanasoff has some place in history, but it was Eckert and Mauchly who invented the computer.

The judge’s edict had the practical effect of liberating the computer industry from royalties on the underlying technology, but the patents were due to expire in 1981 anyway; all it bought the industry was an earlier start on a new phase of explosive growth. However, those were particularly critical years for computing.

Sometimes the (metaphorical) little guy does win after a long legal struggle, as in the case of the laser, and it seems like a victory for justice. But sometimes, as in the case of digital computers, the little guy wins, after a long legal struggle, and it sure seems like an injustice. Most people who knew the facts about Honeywell v. Sperry came to hold contradictory opinions about the verdict: it was unfair to Eckert and Mauchly personally, and yet it was, regrettably, necessary to break a patent stranglehold that was a more up-to-date, genteel version of George Selden’s automobile patent trust, or Thomas Edison’s longtime hold on the early motion picture industry.

Patents, copyrights, the whole idea of intellectual property: Balancing private incentive and the public good are essential parts of progress. Finding that balance isn’t an exact science, alas.

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  1. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Full disclosure: this post started out as a conversation in the PIT:

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    I’ve been reading a history of the laser.

    Misthiocracy has never (View Comment): Nerd.

    Percival (View Comment): I like how his phrasing implies that there are multiple histories of the laser he could be reading instead.

    • #1
  2. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    I’m gobsmacked by the brilliance of this piece.

    I haven’t even read half of it yet.

    (I am commenting now because half of my brain collects knowledge as I read, and the other simultaneously collects joy—the joy of reading words that are a work of art.

    That second half got full and I couldn’t read any more till I emptied it, which I’ve now done, thanks for listening.

    )

    • #2
  3. Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. Coolidge
    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr.
    @BartholomewXerxesOgilvieJr

    One wonders how different things might have been had the existence of the Bletchley Park computer Colossus hadn’t been kept secret until 1975. Colossus was not a general-purpose computer, but it was a programmable computer. And it was operational in 1943, a couple of years before ENIAC.

    Obviously Mauchly did not “steal” anything from Colossus, which was secret. But his patent might have been much more limited in scope if the earlier work of the Bletchley Park engineers had been known.

    • #3
  4. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    Great post!  IIRC, the University of Iowa, where Atanasoff worked, never bothered to apply for a patent on it.  Also, they trashed it because it was just a little too large to fit through a door. There is now a reconstruction, but apparently it is only used as a static display.

    I wrote about ENIAC a couple of years ago.  LINK

     

    • #4
  5. Misthiocracy has never Member
    Misthiocracy has never
    @Misthiocracy

    If Arthur C. Clarke invented the communications satellite then H.G. Wells invented the laser.

    • #5
  6. tigerlily Member
    tigerlily
    @tigerlily

    Great post Gary!

    • #6
  7. Richard Easton Coolidge
    Richard Easton
    @RichardEaston

    Great post Gary!

    A person who, according to my sources, didn’t work on GPS directly or indirectly, nonetheless invented it.

    • #7
  8. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Gary McVey: They hoped it could also do things like improve weather predictions.

    About thirty years later, a nebbish undergrad found himself attending a seminar given by D. L. Slotnick in which he predicted that we would have weather prediction completely licked in another thirty years.

    That would have been around 2009.

    • #8
  9. Misthiocracy has never Member
    Misthiocracy has never
    @Misthiocracy

    Richard Easton (View Comment):

    Great post Gary!

    A person who, according to my sources, didn’t work on GPS directly or indirectly, nonetheless invented it.

    Just like Hedy Lamarr invented Bluetooth.

    • #9
  10. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    Thank you for shining a light on this fascinating topic!

    • #10
  11. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Clavius (View Comment):

    Thank you for shining a light on this fascinating topic!

    • #11
  12. Old Bathos Member
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    I did not much like my patent law class in law school.  Patent prosecution requires a level of detail, precision and mastery of the technology combined with some gamesmanship to make the claim a little broader as a kind of bargaining chip. Not for me.  (Oddly, my son the dual chemistry and math major is a patent lawyer.)

    I was part of a computer copyright case that was light on technical intellectual property legal issues and heavy on the fact that those who copied the software, rewrote it with cosmetic changes and bulk replacements of variable names but left all the original REM statements in place referring to the original variable names.  Idiots.

    In 1982, the appellate jurisdiction of all patent cases was taken away from all the regional US courts of appeals and given exclusively to the Federal Circuit.  This was due in part to lobbying from within the patent bar to have a court with some staff specialization.  Bringing highly arcane technical disputes on appeal before a bunch of poli sci and English majors (who probably went to law school because there was no math or science requirement) and without any in-house expert advice/support from competent clerks was too much of a crapshoot when things of great value are at issue.

    • #12
  13. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    Clavius (View Comment):

    Thank you for shining a light on this fascinating topic!

    Gary often writes posts that nobody else on Ricochet would have written.  He is one of Ricochet’s treasures.

    • #13
  14. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):

    Clavius (View Comment):

    Thank you for shining a light on this fascinating topic!

    Gary often writes posts that nobody else on Ricochet would have written. He is one of Ricochet’s treasures.

    Are you saying he’s the kind of thing you usually find buried on an island?  Because that’s what it sounds like.

    • #14
  15. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    David Foster (View Comment):

    Great post! IIRC, the University of Iowa, where Atanasoff worked, never bothered to apply for a patent on it. Also, they trashed it because it was just a little too large to fit through a door. There is now a reconstruction, but apparently it is only used as a static display.

     

    Seems like the original was basically a static display too, if it didn’t actually work.

    • #15
  16. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Richard Easton (View Comment):

    Great post Gary!

    A person who, according to my sources, didn’t work on GPS directly or indirectly, nonetheless invented it.

    Naturally, I thought of you and your Dad while writing the post. It tugs at our heartstrings when we think of inventors who are unjustly overlooked…but unfortunately, human nature being what it is, it isn’t enough to have the facts on your side. The truth needs active defense. 

    This lady may be sincere and deluded. She may exaggerate her accomplishments. Others may be putting words in her mouth. Or she could just be a crook. 

    • #16
  17. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Misthiocracy has never (View Comment):

    Richard Easton (View Comment):

    Great post Gary!

    A person who, according to my sources, didn’t work on GPS directly or indirectly, nonetheless invented it.

    Just like Hedy Lamarr invented Bluetooth.

    A really egregious case of ideology-blinded “attribution”. 

    Maybe Jackie Kennedy is really the one responsible for the Apollo program. 

    • #17
  18. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    I did not much like my patent law class in law school. Patent prosecution requires a level of detail, precision and mastery of the technology combined with some gamesmanship to make the claim a little broader as a kind of bargaining chip. Not for me. (Oddly, my son the dual chemistry and math major is a patent lawyer.)

    I was part of a computer copyright case that was light on technical intellectual property legal issues and heavy on the fact that those who copied the software, rewrote it with cosmetic changes and bulk replacements of variable names but left all the original REM statements in place referring to the original variable names. Idiots.

    In 1982, the appellate jurisdiction of all patent cases was taken away from all the regional US courts of appeals and given exclusively to the Federal Circuit. This was due in part to lobbying from within the patent bar to have a court with some staff specialization. Bringing highly arcane technical disputes on appeal before a bunch of poli sci and English majors (who probably went to law school because there was no math or science requirement) and without any in-house expert advice/support from competent clerks was too much of a crapshoot when things of great value are at issue.

    For us non-attorney laymen out here, this is very helpful to understanding the system, Bathos. Thanks. 

    • #18
  19. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Old Bathos (View Comment):
    I was part of a computer copyright case that was light on technical intellectual property legal issues and heavy on the fact that those who copied the software, rewrote it with cosmetic changes and bulk replacements of variable names but left all the original REM statements in place referring to the original variable names.  Idiots.

    I find myself wondering why the “bulk replacements of variable names” wouldn’t include the comments too.

    • #19
  20. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. (View Comment):

    One wonders how different things might have been had the existence of the Bletchley Park computer Colossus hadn’t been kept secret until 1975. Colossus was not a general-purpose computer, but it was a programmable computer. And it was operational in 1943, a couple of years before ENIAC.

    Obviously Mauchly did not “steal” anything from Colossus, which was secret. But his patent might have been much more limited in scope if the earlier work of the Bletchley Park engineers had been known.

    There’s a whole international dimension I didn’t get into. Germany’s Konrad Zuse built a machine based on relays, similar to the electromechanical calculators of AT&T before the war, and the Mark I built by IBM and Harvard in 1944. The Soviets made modest steps towards computing and would have been competitive if Marxist dogma hadn’t disdained digital tech until after Stalin’s death. 

    There’s always a little uncertainty when you decide, “Okay, this development is the decisive, defining one. Here’s how come Alexander Graham Bell gets credit, and Elihu Root doesn’t, why Thomas Edison gets credit and Joseph Swan doesn’t, why the Wright brothers get credit and Otto Lilienthal doesn’t.”

    • #20
  21. GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Malpropisms Reagan
    GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Malpropisms
    @GLDIII

    Percival (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: They hoped it could also do things like improve weather predictions.

    About thirty years later, a nebbish undergrad found himself attending a seminar given by D. L. Slotnick in which he predicted that we would have weather prediction completely licked in another thirty years.

    That would have been around 2009.

    Some of us are still working that. Even with a several billions in orbital assets, the weather on Saturday is still a bit of a crap shoot.

    • #21
  22. Old Bathos Member
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Old Bathos (View Comment):
    I was part of a computer copyright case that was light on technical intellectual property legal issues and heavy on the fact that those who copied the software, rewrote it with cosmetic changes and bulk replacements of variable names but left all the original REM statements in place referring to the original variable names. Idiots.

    I find myself wondering why the “bulk replacements of variable names” wouldn’t include the comments too.

    Me too.  Part of it appeared to be that they were replacing lines instead of just a single word. Still dumb.

    • #22
  23. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):

    Clavius (View Comment):

    Thank you for shining a light on this fascinating topic!

    Gary often writes posts that nobody else on Ricochet would have written. He is one of Ricochet’s treasures.

    Thanks, Randy! You’re too kind. You got me my Contributor badge…I wouldn’t want to let you down!

    • #23
  24. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Ma… (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: They hoped it could also do things like improve weather predictions.

    About thirty years later, a nebbish undergrad found himself attending a seminar given by D. L. Slotnick in which he predicted that we would have weather prediction completely licked in another thirty years.

    That would have been around 2009.

    Some of us are still working that. Even with a several billions in orbital assets, the weather on Saturday is still a bit of a crap shoot.

    Prof. Slotnick was a little outside of his specialty, which was parallel computing – a field he helped found.

    • #24
  25. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Old Bathos (View Comment):
    I was part of a computer copyright case that was light on technical intellectual property legal issues and heavy on the fact that those who copied the software, rewrote it with cosmetic changes and bulk replacements of variable names but left all the original REM statements in place referring to the original variable names. Idiots.

    I find myself wondering why the “bulk replacements of variable names” wouldn’t include the comments too.

    Me too. Part of it appeared to be that they were replacing lines instead of just a single word. Still dumb.

    Presumably, they found the lines by looking for the words – even if they found a variable name first in one particular line, they would have to search for that name to find the other occurrences – and those words would have been found in the comments too.  How they could go from that to changing everything BUT the comments, is a mystery.

    • #25
  26. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    One thing about the development of the laser: it was fast, faster even than expected. Of the two inventors mentioned in this post, Gordon Gould and Charles Townes, which one actually built a working laser first? Neither one of them: that honor went to Theodore Maiman in California in May 1960.  That was a “single-shot” ruby rod laser. Surprisingly quickly we moved up to a continuous beam

    That’s what you see, an already popularized idea, in Goldfinger (1964). 

    • #26
  27. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Old Bathos (View Comment):
    I was part of a computer copyright case that was light on technical intellectual property legal issues and heavy on the fact that those who copied the software, rewrote it with cosmetic changes and bulk replacements of variable names but left all the original REM statements in place referring to the original variable names. Idiots.

    I find myself wondering why the “bulk replacements of variable names” wouldn’t include the comments too.

    He answered that in the part you quoted:  “Idiots”

     

    • #27
  28. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Percival (View Comment):

    GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Ma… (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: They hoped it could also do things like improve weather predictions.

    About thirty years later, a nebbish undergrad found himself attending a seminar given by D. L. Slotnick in which he predicted that we would have weather prediction completely licked in another thirty years.

    That would have been around 2009.

    Some of us are still working that. Even with a several billions in orbital assets, the weather on Saturday is still a bit of a crap shoot.

    Prof. Slotnick was a little outside of his specialty, which was parallel computing – a field he helped found.

    This isn’t exactly what you’re talking about, but it might relate to it: one physical feature of ENIAC that insiders in the field noticed was the thick cable that connected each logical section, described as being as large as a fire hose. A key part of Mauchly’s computer architecture was simultaneous operation: it was described to newcomers as having an internal electrical metronome that kept its parts in sync. The term “clock speed” wasn’t in use yet.

    All of this was designed well before the celebrated John von Neumann was invited in to think deep thoughts about the Mauchly design architecture, thereafter to be called “Von Neumann architecture”.

    • #28
  29. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Old Bathos (View Comment):
    I was part of a computer copyright case that was light on technical intellectual property legal issues and heavy on the fact that those who copied the software, rewrote it with cosmetic changes and bulk replacements of variable names but left all the original REM statements in place referring to the original variable names. Idiots.

    I find myself wondering why the “bulk replacements of variable names” wouldn’t include the comments too.

    He answered that in the part you quoted: “Idiots”

     

    Yes, but, it seems like it would take specific effort to NOT change the comments too.  Does “idiots” account for that?  Maybe, but it seems difficult.

    • #29
  30. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    One thing about the development of the laser: it was fast, faster even than expected. Of the two inventors mentioned in this post, Gordon Gould and Charles Townes, which one actually built a working laser first? Neither one of them: that honor went to Theodore Maiman in California in May 1960. That was a “single-shot” ruby rod laser. Surprisingly quickly we moved up to a continuous beam.

    That’s what you see, an already popularized idea, in Goldfinger (1964).

     

     

    • #30
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