Magazine article American Heritage


Magazine article American Heritage


Article excerpt


I enjoyed the article in the November 2000 issue on the creation of Atanasoff and Berry's ABC computer ("My Brush With History: Holding the Baby") but was disappointed in one regard. As a graduate student in the early 1980s, I had an opportunity to hear Atanasoff describe the experience in his own words. The article chides him for not patenting the computer. The truth is that he wanted to do just that. But he was the employee of Iowa State College (now University), and it refused permission, saying the world would need at most two or three of these inventions, not enough to warrant the effort of seeking a patent. Since then--and as a result of this experience--Iowa State has changed its policy and now allows patents on almost anything.

One cannot be too hard on Iowa State, though. After all, had the ABC computer been used only for the purpose it was designed for, the calculation of gunnery tables, the world could probably have gotten by with just two or three of them.

--Bill Baldwin Overland Park, Kans.

The editors reply: We queried Tanya Zanish-Belcher, head of Iowa State's archives. "According to the legal records we have here in the Atanasoff collection," she writes, "it appears that the university lawyer (based in Chicago) responsible for obtaining a patent for Atanasoff simply dropped the ball. It is assumed that this was the direct result of the disruption of the beginning of World War II, and not any Iowa State policy."


Congratulations on Stephen E. Ambrose's excellent article on the construction of the Central and Union Pacific Railroads ("The Big Road," October 2000). No ax was being ground. He makes the point that all the bonds were repaid, and with interest too. What's also true is that in making the land grants, the U.S. government reserved the right to have reduced rates applied to all government traffic, both freight and passenger. The vast volume of freight and troop movements handled in both world wars paid many times over the cost of any assistance given to the railroads. While only those railroads receiving land grants were required to offer these reductions, the stiff competition between railroads allowed government auditors to apply the reduced rates whenever the traffic could have been handled over a land-grant railroad. The rates applied from origin to destination even if only a few miles' journey took place over a land-grant railroad.

--Thomas M. Gilbert Payson, Ariz.

I enjoyed the recent article in the October issue about the first transcontinental railroad but noted that the final meeting site of the two lines was identified ambiguously. Two places in the article indicated Promontory Summit as the location of the event and three places indicated it was Promontory Point.

Promontory Summit, not Promontory Point, is where the event occurred, despite even some encyclopedias. Promontory Point is actually some 30 miles south, on the edge of the Great Salt Lake.

--Charles W. Ellis Scottsbluff, Nebr.


I enjoyed the discussion of Clinton's place in history in "In the News" in December 2000 ("Clinton's Legacy," by Kevin Baker). Calvin Coolidge is definitely an interesting comparison. I would like to offer another one.

I agree that some great Presidents are made by their circumstances, and FDR is definitely one of those, made by the Great Depression and World War II. My impression is that there is one important difference between Coolidge and Clinton: Clinton wanted to make his place in history, and Coolidge never pondered such personal laurels. In this respect, I think Clinton better compares to President Theodore Roosevelt.

TR happens to be at the top of my list of favorites, but he admittedly had a presidential-sized ego. And he faced a problem in establishing a lasting legacy. There was no great crisis for him to solve during his Presidency, so he made his own: trustbusting, national parks, the Panama Canal, and so forth. …

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