Atanasoff, John Vincent

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Atanasoff, John Vincent

(b. 4 October 1903 in Hamilton, New York; d. 15 June 1995 in Monrovia, Maryland), inventor of the first automatic digital computer whose breakthrough concepts were critical to the subsequent development of the general-purpose computer during World War II.

Atanasoff was the first of nine children born to Bulgarian immigrant Ivan (John) Atanasoff and Iva Purdy. His father was a college graduate and largely self-taught electrical engineer. His American-born mother was a mathematics teacher. In Atanasoff’s youth, the family moved frequently, before relocating to Brewster, Florida, where he attended public school. At a young age, he showed a keen interest in mathematics, stimulated by an obsession with understanding the workings of his father’s slide rule.

Atanasoff completed high school in two years, graduating from Mulberry High School in 1920. He spent a year phosphate prospecting to earn money to attend the University of Florida in Gainesville. There he studied electrical engineering and graduated in 1925. He earned a master’s degree at Iowa State College in 1926 and married Lura Meeks. The couple had three children.

Atanasoff, a handsome man with bright eyes and wavy hair, of medium height and build, taught at Iowa State College and prepared for his doctorate by studying physics and mathematics. He earned his Ph.D. in theoretical physics at the University of Wisconsin in 1930 while studying the dielectric constant of helium. The project involved solving complicated mathematical problems on a desk calculator.

Atanasoff returned to the Iowa State faculty in 1930 with a new interest: creating a better device to solve complicated mathematical problems. He had the requisite background for the project—degrees in electrical engineering, mathematics, and theoretical physics. His initial work focused on existing mechanical calculators, though he quickly realized their limitations. Attention shifted to the emerging field of electronics and new experiments with vacuum tubes. In 1937 Atanasoff gravitated to an entirely new approach. The device would be electric and it would record in its memory whether a current was on or off. That made it possible to compute using binary numbers instead of the traditional ten-digit decimal system. In 1939 Atanasoff and his graduate student Clifford Berry built a prototype machine in two months. A full-scale machine followed in 1940. Numbers were entered onto punch cards. Vacuum tubes performed the calculations. Capacitors stored the numbers on a memory drum.

The inexpensive device cost less than $6,000 to build and was the size of an office desk. The computer received little public or scientific notice, with one notable exception. John W. Mauchly, a physicist from Ursinus College, visited Atanasoff in 1941 and spent several days reading and viewing Atanasoff’s notes and seeing demonstrations of the machine known as the Atanasoff Berry Computer (ABC). The original machine was delicate and had a few problems, although it worked and could solve simultaneous algebraic equations with up to thirty variables. Patent applications were fumbled by university officials and attorneys and not aggressively pushed by Atanasoff. Further work was dropped with the outbreak of World War II.

In 1942 Atanasoff took a scientific job at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in Washington, D.C., working mostly on ship dynamics. Meanwhile, Mauchly and his graduate student J. Presper Eckert, Jr. sold the U.S. Army on the potential military uses of a computer, and it gave the Mauchly team a contract to build a computer that could quickly calculate ballistic missile trajectories. Work began in July 1943 and was completed two years later. In February 1946, the War Department publicly announced the “first all-electronic general purpose computer ever developed.” The machine was known as ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer). ENIAC was huge, filling an entire room and weighing over thirty tons. It solved in hours problems that previously took years to calculate. Industrial and commercial applications were obvious. Atanasoff was crushed at this development. Since 1941, Mauchly regularly had sought him out for advice, information, and assistance on computer development. Atanasoff believed many of his ideas were incorporated into ENIAC, but could not get details because of national security classifications. The Navy had wanted Atanasoff to build a computer, but the project was dropped with the public announcement of ENIAC.

Atanasoff continued his government career after the war. He received the Navy Distinguished Public Service Award in 1945. In 1949 he became chief scientist for the Army Field Forces in Fort Monroe, Maryland. That year he divorced his wife and married Alice Crosby. In 1952 he became president of his own company, the Ordnance Engineering Corporation in Frederick, Maryland, which was sold to Aerojet General Corporation in 1957. In 1961 he formed Cybernetics, where he pursued a long-time interest of a phonetic alphabet for computers.

Questions emerged over patent rights in the growing computer industry. In 1973 the U.S. Federal Court in Minnesota decided a landmark case that pitted the industry giants Sperry Rand and Honeywell against each other over ENIAC royalties. Sperry Rand, a major computing company that had absorbed a failed company begun by Mauchly and Eckert, was charging others millions in royalties to use ENIAC patents. Honeywell went to federal court to challenge the patents, hiring as a consultant Atanasoff, who saw the lawsuit as an opportunity to legally establish himself as the inventor of the digital computer despite having never filed a patent. The court ruled that Atanasoff invented the first automatic electric computer and that Mauchly and Eckert had derived ideas from him. The decision rendered the ENIAC patents invalid.

The case was important in establishing Atanasoff’s initial contributions to a major invention, though he continued to live in relative obscurity. Public recognition was slow to follow, though it was enhanced with the publication of books on the controversy. His awards include several honorary degrees, membership in the Bulgarian Academy of Science (1970), the Computer Pioneer Medal from the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (1981), and the National Medal of Technology, presented by President George Bush (1990).

Atanasoff died of a stroke at the age of ninety-one. He is buried in Pine Grove Cemetery in Mount Airy, Maryland.

Atanasoffs contributions to the development of the computer were almost forgotten. He built a simple computing machine based on using electricity and binary numbers. His purpose was simple: build a better calculator. It took a war and a government-funded research team three years to take those ideas and build the first general-purpose computer. Who invented the computer is arguable, but Atanasoff’s critical contribution is not.

Atanasoffs papers, technical notes, invention records, and federal trial documents are in the Special Collections Department, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. Several books established AtanasofFs pioneering role, especially Clark R. Mollenhoff, Atanasoff: Forgotten Father of the Computer (1988), and Alice R. Burks and Arthur W. Burks, The First Electronic Computer: The Atanasoff Story (1988). A contrary view is found in Scott McCartney’s ENIAC: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the World’s First Computer (1999). The Annuals of the History of Computing, the leading scholarly journal on the history of computing, has written extensively on the dispute between Atanasoff and Mauchly. An obituary is in the New York Times (17 June 1995). Oral history tapes are in the Computer Oral History Collection at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Brent Schondelmeyer

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