Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Prophets v. Profits

Christ In Winter: reflections on faith from a place of winter for the years of winter…

I have recently read Jane Smiley’s biography of John Atanasoff, the man who invented the computer. [1] A physics prof at Iowa State, he and his graduate assistant, Clifford Berry, built the first working computer the year I was born. For many years, though, and even today, their work is barely recognized.

Because of WWII service, and other interests later [a true genius, Atanasoff was always eager to move on to something else once he had conquered a field] he didn’t return to computing. Instead, several others who in WWII had developed computing devices for code breaking filed patents for their machines.

Interestingly, the USA is the only country in the world where a patent does not necessarily go to the first to file. If you can prove that you developed something first, and that those who filed for that development used not just your knowledge but your actual work in making their advances, their patent can be broken and awarded to the one who was truly the first.

The real story Smiley tells is an age-old one in science. It was a struggle between those who want knowledge to be available to everyone at no cost, because it would be useful to society, and those who want to monopolize it in order to make money. So it was with the computer.

Atanasoff wasn’t really interested in the money-making aspect of computers. He just wanted to be able to solve physics problems with them. There were others in the WWII crowd who shared his views. There were others who saw the profit possibilities of computers, though, and stabbed one another in the back to be able to claim the computer as their own. Some who had gotten stabbed went to court over it.

That’s where Atanasoff came back in. The claimants showed that those who had won the patents knew very well about the Atanasoff-Berry computer and appropriated both Atanasoff’s ideas and his work.

That’s always the struggle in Christian faith, too, isn’t it, between those who think it should be free to all, and those who either want credit for it or to make money off it. Paul of Tarsus faced that. There were folks who claimed Apollos should get the credit for the church. Others said Paul. Others said Peter. [I Corinthians 3] Today it is: We’re apostolic, or we’re biblical, or we’re the fastest-growing, or we’re America, the new Israel. Or: You should come spend your money here, because we’ve got the biggest cross to see, or we’ve got a Creationism park, or buy my books and DVDs that give you a Christian rationale for being selfish, or we’ve got some Jesus junk for sale, including an olive wood cross that when you rub it, you get anything you want, or send your money to us and God will make you rich, too. [all true]

Paul said: “The good news is for everyone, and it’s free. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So get over it!” [I’ve done some free translation there.]

The final psychological/social task is, in the words of Erik Erikson, “Final integrity vs despair.” If we have based our faith on division or power or money, the things of this world, our final faith will be despair. If it is based on God alone, that is integrity.


[1] SMILEY, Jane. THE MAN WHO INVENTED THE COMPUTER: The Biography of John Atanasoff, Digital Pioneer [Doubleday, 2010] I loved Smiley’s MOO, about the shenanigans at an unnamed Midwestern land grant university, which was obviously Iowa State, where she taught. She is better known for A THOUSAND ACRES, her rendering of Shakespeare’s KING LEAR. If you like college novels like MOO and want a good “north woods Midwestern liberal arts college” novel, read Jon Hassler’s ROOKERY BLUES or Marcus Borg’s PUTTING AWAY CHILDISH THINGS.

{I also write the fictional “Periwinkle Chronicles” blog. One needs a rather strange sense of humor to enjoy it, but occasionally it is slightly funny. It is at}

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