This is actually a bit controversial, even today. I really don’t want to start an arguement, but rather just report on the controversy. In a nutshell, it’s about von Neumann pushing the concepts into the public domain to the contrary of previous agreements (allegedly to gain a position to consult IBM on those ideas). One of the more pronounced proponents of this was J. P. Eckert (ENIAC, UNIVAC, etc) – as may be seen in the below excerpts of an oral history interview conducted by Nancy Stern. However, it’s mostly for this that the principles of computing are in the public domain (apparently, in the case of ENIAC a process for collecting applicable inventions for patent filing had already started and there were several lawsuits about this.)
So here’s the controversy according to J.P. Eckert (referring multiple times to Julian Bigelow as a witness):
An Interview with J. PRESPER ECKERT
Conducted by Nancy Stern on 28 October 1977 Sperry Univac (Blue Bell, PA)
Charles Babbage Institute, Center for the History of Information Processing University of Minnesota, Minneapolis
[J.P. Eckert on the IAS machine (where the University of Pennsylvania was initially meant to be involved in the project), engineers granted inventor positions, on patents and what happened then]
We had a deal with the University of Pennsylvania…the patents go to the individual inventors, except for the rights to the Moore School, institutions in government, and other universities, where we saw reasons for them having to pay. The same deal was to be made at the Institute for Advanced Study. I was to be in charge of the project there as well as the one at Penn. Then when I didn’t go there because of the fight with Dr. Pender, Goldstine, I remember, called and gave me a long tirade over the phone that I should be working for our own company rather than the University. It was the worst thing in the world anyone could ever do and he would never work for a company. After the incident, von Neumann followed through on the proposal that I had originally made–that all the employees that he hired be given this same right there. That we had at Penn.
But if you worked for von Neumann on the MANIAC,* then if you invented something it belonged to you. Well, on some relatively short notice, like it might have been a week, or a month, or something, a short time before the 46 deadlines hit, von Neumann went down and published all that stuff. All the reports of the engineers went to the Library of Congress which put a bar on any patents being obtained by any of his employees. And when they complained about it to him, he just said, “Well, that’s tough; that’s the way I think; that stuff should be in the public domain.” Now there is a perfectly obvious reason for this. He was consulting with people like IBM. If the things weren’t patented that would be a problem for IBM. The idea was he was selling ideas to other people…if it wasn’t covered by patents, he would have been selling something they couldn’t use. They would have come back and said, now, “what kind of a consultant are you, coming up with new ideas which are already patented by others and we can’t use them.” But if these ideas could come under the public domain, then he could go around and sell them to people. That was his game. Now this can be verified by you by going up and talking with Dr. Bigelow, who will tell you perhaps in different words and he certainly has a better memory for the circumstances. He can tell you more precisely what was involved because he went through it and I didn’t. This is what happened to him and to other people. It happened to one of my classmates, Willis Ware, at the Rand Corporation. He was there and I had tried to get Willis to work for me and I didn’t know that he went there even though I tried to get him there. There were a number of people that I was encouraging to go there.
*) MANIAC was actually another machine built after the IAS blueprint. This may be an error by Eckert, who was, immediately before this, talking about MANIAC as a nick name used for ENIAC during construction when it didn’t behave as expected and this then being used for a real machine. Apparently, he is meaning to address the circumstances of the construction of the IAS machine.
[J.P. Eckert on von Neumann’s character and alleged motives]
Look, he sold all our ideas through the back door to IBM as a consultant for them.
Well, there were very different estimates as to how much money he made but some people claim that he made as much as half a million dollars by consulting with them. Julian Bigelow who was close to him said it was less than that, but that it was substantial.
You know, we finally regarded von Neumann as a huckster of other people’s ideas with Goldstine as his principle mission salesman. Now, if you don’t believe this, talk to Julian Bigelow at the Institute for Advanced Study who holds a position that Einstein held during his life.
I think what happened to von Neumann was that he got scooped by somebody…He became cynical and I think probably in a very honest way, he decided he’s not going to let any grass grow under his feet and that he’ll get ahead before anybody else gets ahead of him the next time around. I think that’s what motivated him by the time we met him. Otherwise it’s hard to explain because of his background being a middle class background with no hardships or anything. No other way to explain why he behaved the way he did.
That said, whatever the actual historical events, it’s mostly for von Neumann that the principles of electronic computers are in the public domain.