Honeywell, Inc. v. Sperry Rand Corp.

Honeywell, Inc. v. Sperry Rand Corp., et al. 180 USPQ 673 (D. Minn. 1973) (Case 4-67 Civil 138, 180 USPO 670) was a landmark U.S. federal court case that in October 1973 invalidated the 1964 patent for the ENIAC, the world's first general-purpose electronic digital computer, thus putting the invention of the electronic digital computer into the public domain.

Dispute origins

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 countersuit 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 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 patentholders; by contrast, Honeywell was at the time the largest private employer in Minnesota. The plaintiff's final 500-page brief in the case was filed September 30, 1972.

Chief among the disputes Honeywell v. Sperry Rand was to resolve were:

With 135 days of oral courtroom testimony by 77 witnesses—and the presentation of the deposition of an additional 80 witnesses—for a total trial transcript of 20,667 pages, Honeywell v. Sperry Rand was at that time the longest trial in the history of the federal court system. It was preceded by six years of litigation that produced thousands of pages of under-oath depositions. 25,686 exhibits were marked by the court for plaintiff Honeywell; defendants Sperry Rand and its subsidiary Illinois Scientific Developments contributed 6,968 exhibits. The corporations on the two sides spent a combined more than $8 million pursuing the case. The resulting exhibits and testimony constitute a massive evidentiary record describing the invention and development of the electronic digital computer. Materials relevant to the case but not entered into evidence have appeared, but sparsely and infrequently, since the case's conclusion in 1973.

The computer played a major role in the prosecution of the case for plaintiff Honeywell. A computerized record of documents pertaining to the case, known as Electronic Legal Files (or ELF), allowed Honeywell attorneys to store, sort, recall, and print information on hundreds of different subjects.

The decision

More than seven months following the end of courtroom testimony, Judge Earl R. Larson's decision was published on October 19, 1973 in a document titled Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Order for Judgement.[1] Over 248 pages long, its conclusions defy summarization, but key findings include:

The publication of the Honeywell v. Sperry Rand decision coincided with the event of the Saturday Night Massacre, one of many events in the ongoing Watergate scandal of Richard Nixon's presidency. As a result of the media's focus on Watergate, news of the decision did not attract public attention at the time.

Derivation controversy

Finding 3 was the most controversial, as it assigned the invention of the electronic digital computer by judicial fiat to John V. Atanasoff:

3.1.2 Eckert and Mauchly did not themselves invent the automatic electronic computer, but instead derived that subject matter from one Dr. John Vincent Atanasoff.
U.S. District Judge Earl R. Larson, Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Order for Judgement

Charges of derivation stemmed from testimony and correspondence describing meetings between Atanasoff and Mauchly in December 1940 and June 1941, the first at the University of Pennsylvania where Atanasoff attended a talk given by Mauchly at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on use of Mauchly's harmonic analyzer (a simple analog computer) to speed the calculation of meteorological data to test for periodicities in precipitation, and the second in Ames, Iowa where Mauchly had driven to visit Atanasoff for a period of five days and to examine his progress on a special-purpose computing machine whose construction Atanasoff had described for Mauchly at the prior meeting. (In the discovery process leading up to Honeywell v. Sperry Rand, this device came to be called the Atanasoff–Berry Computer, or ABC; Clifford Berry had been Atanasoff's graduate student assistant in the computer development project in the basement of the physics building at Iowa State College and in 1942 the two of them left Iowa State for positions in war research—Atanasoff in Washington, D.C. and Berry in Pasadena, California.)

All parties agree that Mauchly had opportunity to see the ABC, which was then in a sufficiently advanced state of construction to demonstrate many if not all of its general principles. There is disagreement about (and no definitive evidence regarding) the extent to which Mauchly understood—or indeed was interested in or capable of understanding—the circuit designs incorporated in the machine. The ABC's inventors considered their invention novel and patentable. The same trip to Philadelphia in December 1940 included a visit to the Patent Office in Washington, D.C. to conduct patent searches—so Dr. Mauchly's contention under oath that the ABC's inventors were deliberately hesitant about revealing all of the machine's details would seem to be credible. All parties agreed that Mauchly took away with him no written technical description of the ABC. However, he was familiar enough with the ABC's basic method of operation, particularly the involvement of its rotating capacitor memory drum, to have described it to J. Presper Eckert in 1943 or 1944, and to have recounted it in some detail in a 1967 deposition, over 26 years after having visited the ABC in June 1941.

Correspondence from Mauchly to Atanasoff following Mauchly's visit was touted by the plaintiff as a smoking gun. Considered to be particularly damning to the Sperry Rand case were the following often-quoted excerpts:

A number of different ideas have come to me recently anent computing circuits—some of which are more or less hybrids, combining your methods with other things, and some of which are nothing like your machine. The question in my mind is this: is there any objection, from your point of view, to my building some sort of computer which incorporates some of the features of your machine? ... Ultimately a second question might come up, of course, and that is, in the event that your present design were to hold the field against all challengers, and I got the Moore School interested in having something of the sort, would the way be open for us to build an "Atanasoff Calculator" (a la Bush analyzer) here?
John W. Mauchly to John V. Atanasoff, September 30, 1941

Taken in context, this and other letters entered into evidence in Honeywell v. Sperry Rand evinced a spirit of cordiality and mutual admiration between Mauchly and Atanasoff, one that would continue into the 1940s, as Atanasoff recommended Mauchly for part-time consulting work at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in 1943 and Mauchly continued to visit Atanasoff in White Oak, Maryland throughout 1944, where Mauchly served as mentor, guide, and sounding board to some of those on Atanasoff's staff.

Honeywell v. Sperry Rand and the decision it culminated in emphasized the differences between the ENIAC and the ABC, some of which were:

Following the ruling, some writers perceived recognition of Atanasoff for his title as "father of the computer" was slow in coming, and wrote books of their own. These included Pulitzer Prize-winning Iowan reporter Clark R. Mollenhoff and wife-and-husband team Alice Burks and Arthur Burks. (Arthur had been on the ENIAC's engineering staff and had requested to be added as a co-inventor following the issuance of the ENIAC patent; Alice Burks had been a computer at the Moore School.)

Since the time of the ruling, the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing has served as the principal battleground for articles debating the derivation controversy. Therein John Mauchly's widow Kay published her retort to the first Burks article following her husband's 1980 death. An article by Calvin Mooers, a former employee of Atanasoff's at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory, was published posthumously; in it, he questioned Atanasoff's commitment to and capacity for development of computing machines even when provided with ample financial resources.


  1. Text of US District Court Decision at, Retrieved August 1, 2015

External links

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