John Vincent Atanasoff

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John Vincent Atanasoff


American Inventor, Physicist and Mathematician

It is impossible to imagine a world without computers. Computers control nearly every facet of our lives, from car air bags to airplanes, schools, businesses, and space shuttles. None of these modern marvels would have been possible without the work of John Vincent Atanasoff. He was responsible for creating the first digital computer, and with his invention, launching the modern era of computing.

Atanasoff was born on October 4, 1903, in Hamilton, New York. Early on, he became fascinated with mathematics, and was especially interested in a Dietzgen slide rule his father had bought, and the mathematical principles by which it operated. (A slide rule allows the user to perform calculations mechanically by sliding one ruler against another-both rulers are marked with graduated scales.) Atanasoff's family later moved to Florida, where he completed high school as a straight-A student.

In 1921, Atanasoff entered the University of Florida, continuing his perfect grade point average. He graduated with a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering in 1925. He continued his studies at Iowa State College (now University), where he studied mathematics, earning a master's degree in 1926. Within a few days of graduating, Atanasoff married his college sweetheart, Lura Meeks. Four years later, in 1930, he received his doctorate in theoretic physics from the University of Wisconsin, and soon thereafter returned to Iowa State University to become an assistant professor in mathematics and physics.

Ever since his early fascination with the slide rule, Atanasoff had been interested in finding new and faster ways of performing mathematical computations. He was frustrated by the slow, time-consuming devices that were available at the time—the Monroe calculator and the IBM tabulator—and knew he could create a more efficient calculating machine. He envisioned a machine that was digital, rather than the relatively slow and inaccurate analog models. While sitting in an Illinois pub in 1937, he came up with the principles that would form the basis of his electronic digital computer. His machine would utilize capacitors (components in an electrical circuit) to store the electrical charge that would represent numbers in the form of 0s and 1s. Rather than using a base-10 counting system, as in analog devices, it would use binary numbers (those with a numerical base of 2) and compute by direct logic. And finally, it would have condensers for memory, and a regenerative process, which could store information even when power was lost.

To assist him in his work, Atanasoff called in Iowa State graduate student Clifford Berry, a well-respected electrical engineer. The two developed their prototype, the Atanasoff Berry Computer (ABC), in December of 1939. The ABC had two rotating drums containing capacitors, which held the electrical charge for the memory. Data was entered using punched cards.

The following year, Atanasoff attended a lecture given by physicist Dr. John W. Mauchly (1907-1980), who expressed interest in the ABC prototype. Atanasoff offered to show Mauchly his invention, a decision which he would later regret, as Mauchly apparently stole many of Atanasoff's ideas when designing his own computer, called the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer). It is a general misconception that the ENIAC was the world's first digital computer. The ABC actually predated the ENIAC.

In the 1970s, a landmark court case (Honeywell Inc. vs. Sperry Rand Corp et al.) overturned ENIAC's patent, ruling that Mauchly's computer borrowed many of its design features from the ABC. While Atanasoff eventually established his own successful business, he was never able to secure a patent for his ABC and failed to gain the recognition he deserved. It was not until 1990, when he was awarded the National Medal of Technology by President George Bush, that his contributions to the field of computing were finally recognized.

Atanasoff died of a stroke on June 15, 1995, at his home in Monrovia, Maryland. He was 91 years old. Although his invention never took off on its own, the methods used in his prototype ABC computer were to form the backbone of every modern computer used today.


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John Vincent Atanasoff

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