The ENIAC patent suit

The ENIAC patent suit

Truth has a way of coming out at the unlikeliest moment. The decision on the case of Sperry Rand vs. Honeywell was one such moment. On February 15, 1946, the existence of the previously classified ENIAC became front-page news in The New York Times. To many, this marks the start of the electronic computer age. 27 years will pass after the ENIAC was first unveiled to the world until Judge Larson’s decision was published in 1973 stating that the ENIAC patent was invalid on the basis of derivation. Let’s look at the events as they unfolded culminating in the watershed decision.

Patent History

We left off last week at how the women programmers were used to program the ENIAC and left in the lurch subsequently. Looks like they were not the only ones who were given the raw deal. The whole premise on which the ENIAC’s claim to be the world’s first digital electronic computer seems to be deceptive. It took 17 years for the ENIAC patent to come through in 1964. When Sperry Rand tried to enforce the patent, they ran into strong resistance from Honeywell and CDC.

According to the article, Honeywell vs. Sperry Rand Records, 1935-1973 in the LEMELSON CENTER for the Study of Invention and Innovation website,

“….ENIAC, the first operating electronic digital computer, which had been developed by J. Presper Eckert and John W. Mauchly between 1942 and 1945. The ENIAC, with its 18,000 vacuum tubes, had been commissioned to produce ballistics tables for the Army’s Ordnance Department, but it did not have stored memory capability. Eckert and Mauchly formed the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation in 1946 and began to develop a commercially viable computer using R&D funding from the Census Bureau. This funding proved inadequate, and the company was on the verge of bankruptcy in 1949. Eckert and Mauchly were forced to sell the company to the highest bidder, which was Remington Rand, Inc., a major manufacturer of business machines and office equipment. Remington Rand delivered the first UNIVAC computer to the Census Bureau in March 1951. Under devastating competition from the IBM 650 Computer, introduced in 1954, Remington Rand merged with the Sperry Corporation to form Sperry Rand on June 30, 1955. The Patent Office finally granted a patent on the ENIAC to Eckert and Mauchly in 1964. Sperry Rand then began notifying all computer companies that they were violating its patent rights and offered to license its competitors for a fee of 1.5 per cent. IBM reached a $10 million settlement with Sperry Rand in 1965. Honeywell and Control Data Corporation rejected Sperry Rand’s claim. Sperry Rand sued for patent violation and Honeywell countersued, asserting that the patent was fraudulent.”

Dispute Origins

There were 2 lawsuits filed. One was tried, by virtue of having been filed a few minutes early. According to historians, this would have a bearing on the success of the lawsuit and the future of the computer industry. The Wikipedia article Honeywell, Inc. v. Sperry Rand Corp. explains it thus.

“The case was a combination of two separate lawsuits: one brought by Sperry Rand Corporation and its holding company Illinois Scientific Developments against Honeywell Corporation in Washington, D.C. charging Honeywell with patent infringement and demanding royalties, and a counter suit filed in Minneapolis, Minnesota by Honeywell charging Sperry Rand with monopoly and fraud and seeking the invalidation of the ENIAC patent, alleged to be infirm. Both suits were filed on May 26, 1967, with Honeywell filing just minutes earlier, a fact that would later have a tremendous bearing on the case.

The trial was presided over by U.S. District Court Judge Earl R. Larson between June 1, 1971, and March 13, 1972, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a jurisdiction decided when D.C. Circuit Chief Judge John Sirica ruled that Honeywell had won the May 26 race to file the suit in court. Attorneys for Sperry Rand wanted the case to be tried in Washington, D.C., a district perceived to be friendlier to the rights of patent holders; by contrast, Honeywell was at the time the largest private employer in Minnesota.”

Patent Suit Background

There is an interesting article in the JVA website PATENT/COURT CASE Honeywell vs. Sperry Rand, which explains how an earlier lawsuit had been filed against the very same ENIAC patent by Bell Telephone Laboratories, which failed due to lack of sufficient evidence of “prior public use”. How the very same was established using the Atanasoff Berry Computer in this lawsuit.

“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 in 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.”

“…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.”

Patent Suit

The patent suit or should we rather call it the ‘paternity’ suit, was a mammoth task of epic proportions. The case produced so much documentation, that studying it would give one a clear idea of not only this lawsuit but also the developments during the period of the entire computer industry. The article, Honeywell vs. Sperry Rand Records, 1935-1973 in the LEMELSON CENTER for the Study of Invention and Innovation website, gives us an idea of how thorough the documentation was.

“The Honeywell-Sperry Rand lawsuit produced 50,000 pages of trial transcript, and over 36,000 documents were entered in evidence. Sperry Rand’s lawyers produced a huge archive of trial documents. Two major files were created, the “Original file” of documents from Sperry Rand’s own archives, and the “Chronological file” of all documents located during the discovery process and entered as exhibits. The trial archive is a major source on the history of the computer industry.

The “Original file” consists primarily of the records of the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation and documents the efforts of Eckert and Mauchly to develop and market the ENIAC, BINAC, and UNIVAC computers. The records on ENIAC trace the development of the first electronic digital computer from its conception in 1942 through its completion in 1945. Included are a copy of Mauchly’s original proposal to the Ordnance Department, a copy of Mauchly’s original proposal to the Ordnance Department, his correspondence with John V. Atanasoff, and his lecture notes from the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Engineering. There is a complete set of ENIAC progress reports, as well as correspondence between Herman Goldstine, the Army’s chief liaison and the engineers who worked on the project. There are also files on the EDVAC computer, the first with stored memory capacity, which was developed by John von Neumann. The records of the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation proper describe the development of UNIVAC on a component-by-component basis. They include technical memoranda, progress reports, engineering notebooks, and patent files. Customer correspondence includes letters and contracts with the National Bureau of Standards, A.C. Neilsen, Northrop Aviation, Fairchild-NEPA, and the American Totalisator Company.

The “Chronological file” is a complete record of all documents submitted in evidence during the trial. Much of the material in this series duplicates records in Series I – but the “Chronological file” is more complete. The records from 1935 to 1950 are particularly valuable as they describe the origins and evolution of most of the early computer projects. There are reports describing John Atanasoff’s computer and letters which trace his unsuccessful attempts to sell his machine to IBM and Remington Rand during the 1930s and 40s. The chronological file also contains documentation on the computer projects sponsored by National Cash Register, IBM, MIT, and Harvard University during the late 1930s and early 1940s.”

The Verdict

The verdict, a landmark for the computer industry was sadly overshadowed by another controversy, the Watergate scandal, that was rocking the US at that time.

According to the article, PATENT/COURT CASE Honeywell vs. Sperry Rand in the JVA web site,

“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.”

The long reign of ENIAC as the world’s first electronic digital computer thus came to an end. Let’s look at another Armed forces funded project called the Whirlwind project and how it was the first computer to have real time computing and a revolutionary memory storage system. It ultimately led to the development of the SAGE air defence system, the United States’ answer to the Russian nuclear threat at the height of cold war. Sounds interesting, doesn’t it? But, you’ll have to wait a week for that.

Leave a Reply