Computer Science Illuminated, Third Edition


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Chapter 5: Computing Components

John Vincent Atanasoff

John Vincent Atanasoff was born in Hamilton, New York, on October 4, 1903, one of nine children. When he was about ten, his father bought a new slide rule. After reading the instructions, John Vincent became more interested in the mathematics involved than in the slide rule itself. His mother picked up on his interest and helped him study his father's old college algebra book. He continued his interest in mathematics and science and graduated from high school in two years. His family moved to Old Chicara, Florida where John Vincent graduated from the University of Florida in 1925 with a degree in electrical engineering because the university didn't offer a degree in theoretical physics. A year later, he received a Master's degree in mathematics from Iowa State College. In 1930, after receiving his Ph.D. in theoretical physics, he returned to Iowa State College as an assistant professor in mathematics and physics.

Dr. Atanasoff became interested in finding a machine that could do the complex mathematical work he and his graduate students were doing. He examined computational devices in existence at that time, including the Monroe calculator and the IBM tabulator. Upon concluding that these machines were too slow and inaccurate, he became obsessed with finding a solution. He said that at night in a tavern after a drink of bourbon he began generating ideas of how to build this computing device. It would be electronically operated and would compute by direct logical action rather than enumeration, as in analog devices. It would use binary numbers rather than decimal numbers, condensers for memory, and a regenerative process to avoid lapses due to leakage of power.

In 1939, with a $650 grant from the school and a new graduate assistant named Clifford Berry, Dr. Atanasoff began work on the first prototype of the Atanasoff Berry Computer (ABC) in the basement of the physics building. The first working prototype was demonstrated that year.

In 1941, John Mauchly, a physicist at Ursinus College whom Dr. Atanasoff had met at a conference, came to Iowa State to visit the Atanasoffs and see a demonstration of the ABC machine. After extensive discussions, Mauchly left with papers describing its design. Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert continued their work on a computation device at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. Their machine, the ENIAC, completed in 1945, became known as the first computer.

Dr. Atanasoff went to Washington in 1942 to become director of the Underwater Acoustics Program at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory, leaving the patent application for the ABC computer in the hands of the Iowa State attorneys. The patent application was never filed and the ABC was eventually dismantled without either Atanasoff or Berry being notified. After the war, Dr. Atanasoff was chief scientist for the Army Field Forces and director of the Navy Fuse program at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory.

In 1952, Dr. Atanasoff established The Ordnance Engineering Corporation, a research and engineering firm, which was later sold to Aerojet General Corporation. He continued to work for Aerojet until he retired in 1961.

Meanwhile, in 1947 Mauchly and Eckert applied for the patent on their ENIAC computer. Sperry Rand bought the patent, and when it was issued in 1964, began to collect royalties. Honeywell declined to pay and Sperry Rand brought suit. The subsequent trial lasted 135 working days and filled more than 20,000 pages of transcript from the testimony of 77 witnesses, including Dr. Atanasoff. Judge Larson found that Mauchly and Eckert "did not themselves first invent the automatic electronic digital computer, but instead derived that subject matter from one Dr. John Vincent Atanasoff."

In 1990 President George Bush acknowledged Dr. Atanasoff's pioneering work by awarding him the National Medal of Technology. Dr. Atanasoff died on June 15, 1995.

Additional Links

Hien Chris Do wrote a comprehensive biography of Atanasoff's life and Virginia Tech hosts this composition here.

Visit the John Vincent Atanasoff web site
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