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People in Computing
John Vincent Atanasoff - Forgotten Father of Computers
by Kilen Matthews

Beginnings and Education
John Vincent Atanasoff, born on 4 October 1903 in Hamilton, New York the first child of John Atanasoff and Iva Lucena Purdy took an early interest in mathematics. His father brought home a Dietzgen slide rule and young John's interest was captivated. He read the manual of how to use the slide rule and became fascinated with the underlying mathematical principles. With his mother's help, he began self-study of a college algebra book from his father's library.

The family moved to Florida where John attended high school and graduated in only two years, receiving straight A's is all of his science and math courses. He did some work to accumulate funds and delayed his entry to university for short while.

He received a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering from the University of Florida in 1925 with a perfect record of straight A's as an undergraduate.

Atanasoff received his master's degree in mathematics from Iowa State College in 1926 and a few days after graduation married Lura Meeks. He moved to theoretical physics for his Ph.D. that he received from the University of Wisconsin. During his Ph.D. work, the Atanasoff's first daughter was born then John returned to Iowa State College as an assistant professor in mathematics and physics.

Dr. Atanasoff had always been interested in finding better and faster ways to perform mathematical computations. Along with two others at Iowa State he had built an analog calculator called a laplaciometer, which analyzed the geometry of surfaces. Dr. His examination of the devices available at the time, including the Monroe calculator and the International Business Machines (IBM) tabulator left him frustrated with the speed and accuracy limitations.

He envisioned a computational device that was "digital," believing that analog devices were too restrictive and could never get get the level of accuracy he wanted.

In 1937, while on a drive Atanasoff stopped for a drink at a roadhouse tavern in Illinois. Over bourbon and water his idea for the principles of a digital computing device, different from anything conceived before, came together. The machine he envisioned would:

in 1939 Atanasoff recruited a graduate student to assist him with his computing project and was introduced to Clifford Berry, a gifted electrical engineer with a similar background to himself. A few months later, in December they presented the first prototype of the Atanasoff Berry Computer (ABC). It's debut caused a stir at the university where it amazed the audience with the potential it presented. Atanasoff worked to patent the ABC as well as develop and enhance the prototype.

Although the ABC utilized a mechanical clock system, the computing was electronic and for the first time in computing, vacuum tubes were used. Data was entered via punch cards and the ABC used two rotating drums containing capacitors to hold the electrical charge for the dynamic memory.

The project, with a budget under $1,000, was described in a detailed 35-page manuscript which was sent to a patent lawyer. Atanasoff believed his device could lead to a "computing machine which will perform all the operations of the standard tabulators and many more at much higher speeds," and tried to interest Remington Rand in his invention. They turned him down.

In 1940 Dr. Atanasoff attended a lecture given by Dr. John W. Mauchly at Ursinus College, near Philadelphia. Mauchly became very interested in Atanasoff's computing work and was invited to spend several days at the Atanasoff home, where he was briefed extensively on the ABC and saw it demonstrated. Mauchly left the Atanasoff home with papers describing the principles and design of the ABC.

Dr. Mauchly went on, with colleague, Dr. J. Presper Eckert to invent, design and build ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer) which is usually regarded at the world's first electronic digital computer. They claimed to have invented the idea for ENIAC over an ice cream lunch. For many years, they were acclaimed as the fathers of modern computing. However, many of the ideas and concepts used in ENIAC were the same as those used in Atanasoff's ABC.

Dr. Atanasoff had hoped to pursue a patent for his computer, but with the onset of  World War II he was called to Washington to do physics research for the Navy. Iowa State university held rights to his work but dropped the efforts to secure a patent.

The Court Battle
The Sperry Rand corporation filed a patent infringement case against Honeywell involving computing devices and ENIAC principles. A long trial ensued. Finally, in 1972 Dr. Atanasoff was given a small victory as U.S. District Judge Earl R. Larson voided Sperry Rand's patent on the ENIAC, saying it had been "derived" from Dr. Atanasoff's invention.

Although there was no official statement condemning Dr. Mauchly for "stealing" ideas from Dr. Atanasoff's, Judge Larson did conclude that Mauchly had used many of Dr. Atanasoff's ideas on the ABC to design the ENIAC. When the trial ended, Dr. Atanasoff was given credit as the inventor of the electronic digital computer.

The world's history of electronic computing was rewritten: the Atanasoff-Berry Computer took its rightful place at the head of the family tree of electronic computing devices.

By this time Dr. Atanasoff was retired and he never did earn any money from his invention. He said that he "wasn't possessed with the idea I had invented the first computing machine. If I had known the things I had in my machine, I would have kept going on it."

Research, Career and Business
Dr. Atanasoff became director of the underwater acoustics program at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory at White Oak, now the Naval Surface Weapons Center, where he worked extensively with mines, mine countermeasures and depth charges.

He participated in the atomic weapons tests at Bikini Atoll after World War II and became chief scientist for the Army Field
Forces, at Fort Monroe, Va., in 1949. He returned to the laboratory as director of the Navy Fuze programs then in 1952 he began his own company, Ordnance Engineering Corp. OEC was bought by Aerojet Engineering Corp. in 1956, and Dr. Atanasoff was named a vice president until his retirement in 1961. After retirement Atanasoff worked in the area of computer education for young people and developed a phonetic alphabet for use with computers.

Awards and Honors
His long list of awards and honors includes the U.S. Navy Distinguished Civilian Service Award - the U.S. Navy's highest honor awarded to civilians, five honorary doctorate degrees, membership in the Iowa Inventors Hall of Fame, and the U.S. National Medal of Technology presented by President George Bush in 1990. Dr. Atanasoff, whose father was born in Bulgaria, also was awarded the Order of Cyril and Methodius, First Class, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, Bulgaria's highest honor accorded a scientist.

Dr. John Vincent Atanasoff died 15 June 1995 of a stroke at his home in Monrovia, Md. He was 91 years old, the true inventor of the digital electronic computer.