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Atanasoff, John Vincent
(October 4, 1903–June 15, 1995)

–computer inventor—was born in Hamilton, New York, the son of John and Iva Lucena (Purdy) Atanasoff. His father was an electrical engineer, working primarily in Florida. As a child, John Vincent was fascinated by numbers, an enthusiasm his parents encouraged. In 1921 he entered the University of Florida, earning a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering in 1925. He moved on to Iowa State College (ISC) for a master's in mathematics (1926) and then to the University of Wisconsin for a doctorate in theoretical physics (1930).

    Ph.D. in hand, Atanasoff returned to ISC as an assistant professor of physics and mathematics. Like other scientists of the time, his work was hampered by the extensive, repetitive calculations required to document mathematical relationships in ballistics, acoustics, and hydrodynamics. He tried Monroe calculators and various IBM products to help with such calculations, but none had the capacity to handle the sheer number of equations involved in each calculation. As a result, his early years at ISC were a study in frustration.

    In 1937, however, after spending years focused on the problem, Atanasoff hit upon an idea that revolutionized machine calculation and laid the groundwork for the modern computer. At the heart of Atanasoff's vision was the use of the basic digital (on/off) quality of electrical circuitry to do the work of counting. The idea has been refined over the years, but virtually all developments in computer technology since Atanasoff's great insight of 1937 embrace this fundamental principle. Digital circuitry was just one component of Atanasoff's vision, which also included binary enumeration, regenerative memory, and serial calculation, but the on/off principle was the key.

    With a grant of $650 from ISC, in 1939 Atanasoff hired an ISC graduate student, Clifford Berry, to help him build the prototype. The prototype was a couple of feet square, just big enough to mount the circuitry and peripherals necessary for calculation. Atanasoff and Berry referred to the prototype as the "Breadboard Model" because of its compact size. Demonstrations of the Breadboard Model began in October 1939. Impressed by what they saw, college officials awarded Atanasoff $850 to continue his work with Berry. ISC officials also made inquiries to the nonprofit Research Corporation of New York about an additional $5,000 to help support development of the full-size computer at ISC and contacted an attorney to begin preparation of a formal patent application. Atanasoff and Berry produced a 35-page manuscript titled "Computing Machines for the Solution of Large Systems of Linear Algebraic Questions" to document their efforts.

    Most of Atanasoff and Berry's plan for constructing the desk-size, full-scale computer held up well in practice. When challenged by technical problems, their backgrounds as hobbyists provided the necessary improvisational skills to see them through. The 1939 demonstrations had already shown that the Breadboard Model could accurately add and subtract. But progress made in 1940 and 1941 indicated the full measure of Atanasoff's design for a totally electronic machine. At that time, MIT's Differential Analyzer–along with a few other calculating machines—was thought to be the epitome of speed and efficiency. But even the most sophisticated computing machines of the day required some mechanical (that is, human) intervention in their procedures. By contrast, the electronic "purity" of the ISC computer made for greater speed and efficiency.

    Unfortunately, U.S. entry into World War II put a stop to the computer project. Both Atanasoff and Berry left Ames in the summer of 1942, each going his own way to support the war effort. Atanasoff joined the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in the Washington, D.C., area, and Berry took a job at Consolidated Engineering Corporation in Pasadena, California. There is no indication that either man was particularly hungry to get back to the ISC project after the war, perhaps because both found attractive alternatives, Atanasoff in a series of military projects and Berry in a successful career in corporate-sponsored research. Meanwhile, the revolutionary computer gathered dust in the basement of ISC's physics building for several years, until building staff finally dismantled the machine to make space for other uses.

    Decades later, in the mid 1960s, Atanasoff found himself in the middle of a major patent controversy. The Honeywell Corporation brought suit against the Sperry Rand Company, which was claiming patent rights to the basic technology underlying all electronic computers on the market. Honeywell's lawyers argued that the basic technology claimed by Sperry Rand was in fact the work of Atanasoff and Berry. In 1972, after a 10-year court case, the judge ruled in favor of Honeywell, specifying that Atanasoff and Berry had designed and demonstrated the basic digital principles of the modern computer. However, since no patent had been filed by Atanasoff, Berry, or ISC in the early 1940s, the court provided neither monetary reward nor reassignment of patent rights to any of the parties involved.
Sources Jean R. Berry, "Clifford Edward Berry, 1918–1963: His Role in Early Computers," Annals of the History of Computing 61 (1986), 361, is helpful in tracing the comings and goings of Atanasoff and Berry in the critical years 1939–1942. Alice Rowe Burks, Who Invented the Computer? (2003), contains interesting transcripts from the court case but is primarily a diatribe aimed at any and all who would dare challenge Atanasoff and Berry's primacy in the history of computing. Alice Rowe Burks and Arthur W. Burks, The First Electronic Computer: The Atanasoff Story (1988), is a levelheaded discussion of the state of computer science in the 1940s. Clark Mollenhoff, Forgotten Father of the Computer (1988), is a solid piece of work, based on extensive interviews with Atanasoff and many other key personalities in the story. See also William Silag, "The Invention of the Electronic Digital Computer at Iowa State College, 1930–1942," Palimpsest 65 (1984), 150–78.
Contributor: Bill Silag

Cite as: Silag, Bill. "Atanasoff, John Vincent" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 11 December 2017