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17-2 Who is John Atanasoff (by John Bell)


This article is from the Bulgaria FAQ, by Dragomir R. Radev radev@tune.cs.columbia.edu with numerous contributions by others.

17-2 Who is John Atanasoff (by John Bell)

(by John Bell), last updated: 19-Jun-1995

John V. Atanasoff, 91, who invented the first electronic
computer in 1939 and later saw others take credit for his discovery,
died of a stroke June 15 at his home in Monrovia, Md.

Dr. Atanasoff, whose pioneenng work ultimately was
aclmowledged during lengthy patent litigation in the 1970s, never
made money off bis invention, which was the first computer to
separate data processing from memory. It heads the famiky tree of
today's personal computers and mainframes.

Two other scientists, J. Presper Eckert and John W.
Mauchly, drew on Dr. Atanasoff's research. In the mid-1940s, they
were the first to patent a digital computing device, which they
called the ENIAC (electronic numerical integrator and computer).
They said they had worked out the concept over ice cream and
coffee in a Philadelphia restaurant. For many years, they were
acclaimed as the fathers of modern computing.

But a court battle 20 years ago between two corporate
giants, Honeywell and Sperry Rand, directed the spotlight to Dr.
Atanasoff. He said the idea in fact, had come to him over bourbon
and water in a roadhouse in Illinois in 1937. He was out on a drive
>from Iowa State University, in Ames, where he taught mathematics
and physics, and had stopped to think about the computing devices
he had been working on since 1935.

He needed a machine that could do the complex
mathematicat work he and his graduate students had been trying on
desk calculators. He and two others at Iowa State already had build
an analog catculator called a laplaciometer, which analyzed the
geometry of surfaces.

It was that evening in the tavern, he said, that the possibility
of regenerative memory and the concept of logic circuits came to
him. The machine he envisioned was different from anything
conceived before.

It would be electronically operated and would use base-two
(binary) numbers instead of the traditional base-10 numbers. It
would have condensers fro memory and a regenerative process to
preclude loss of memory from electrical failures. It would use
direct logical action for computing rather than the counting system
used in analog processes.

Within months, he and a talented graduate student, Clifford
Berry, had developed a crude prototype of an electronic computer.
Although it used a mechanical clock system, the computing was
electronic. It had two rotating drums containing capacitors, which
held the electrical charge for the memory. Data were entered using
punch cards. For the first time, vacuum tubes were used in
computing. The project, which cost $1,000, was detailed in a 35-
page manuscript, and university lawyers sent a copy to a patent

The next year, Mauchly, a physicist at Ursinus College,
near Philadelphia, whom Dr. Atanasoff had met at a conference,
came to see Dr. Atanasoff's work. Mauchly stayed several days at
the Atanasoff home, where he was briefed extensively about the
computer project and saw it demonstrated. He left with papers
describing its design.

That same year, Dr. Atanasoff tried to interest Remington
Rand in his invention, saying he believed it could lead to a
"computing machine which will perform all the operations of the
standard tabulators and many more at much higher speeds," but the
company turned him down. Years later, it would eagerly seek his

Dr. Atanasoff had hoped to file a patent for his computer,
but he was called away to Washington at the start of World War II
to do physics research for the Navy. And there were complications
with Iowa State, which held rights to his work but had discontinued
efforts to secure a patent.

By the time the computer industry was off and running, Dr.
Atanasoff was involved with other areas of defense research and
out of touch with computer development. The Iowa State
prototype had been dismantled while he was away working for the
Navy. But he had kept his research papers.

He later said he "wasn't possessed with the idea I had
invented the first computing machine. If I had knovn the things I
had in my machine, I would have kept going on it."

The Atanasoff prototype finally was recognized as the father
of modern computing when, in a patent infringement case Sperry
Rand brought against Honeywell, a federal judge voided Sperry
Rand's patent on the ENIAC, saying it had been derived from Dr.
Atanasoff's invention.

It was "akin to finding a new father of electricity to replace
Thomas Edison," said a writer on the computer industry. The
decision made news in the industry, but Dr. Atanasoff, th this time
retired, continued to live in relative obscurity in Frederick County.

Later, in 1988, two books about his work were published:
"The First Electronic Computer: The Atanasoff Story," by Alice R.
Burns and Arthur W. Burns, and "Atanasoff, Forgotten Father of
the Computer," by Clark R. Mollenhoff. Other articles were
published in the Annals of the History of Computing, Scientific
American and Physics Today.

In 1990, President George Bush acknowledged Dr.
Atanasoff's pioneering work by awarding him the National Medal of

John Vincent Atanasoff was born in Hamilton, N.Y. He was
an electrical engineering graduate of the University of Florida and
received a master's degree in mathematics from Iowa State
University, where he taught for 15 years. He received a doctorate in
physics from the Uni- versity of Wisconsin.

Dr. Atanasoff left Iowa State in the early 1940s to become
director of the underwater acoustics program at the Naval
Ordnance Laboratory at White Oak, now the Naval Surface
Weapons Center, where he worked largely 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 re- turned to the
ordnance laboratory after two years to be director of the Navy Fuze
programs, and in 1952 he began his own company, Ord- nance
Engineering Corp.

That company was sold to Aerojet Engineering Corp. in
1956, and Dr. Atanasoff was named a vice president. After he
retired in 1961, he was a consultant and continued to work in
computer education for young people. He also developed a
phonetic alphabet for computers.

His honors included the Navy's Distinguished Civilian
Service Award, five honorary doctorates, the Computer Pioneer
Medal of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, the
Holley Medal of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and
the Distinguished Achievement Citation of Iowa State University.
He was a member of the Iowa Inventors Hall of Fame. Dr.
Atanasoff, whose father was born in Bulgaria, also was awarded
Bulgaria's highest science award and was a member of the
Bulgarian Academy of Science.

He was a member of the Phi Beta Kappa, Pi Mu Epsilon
and Tau Beta Pi honorary societies and the Cos- mos Club.

Dr. Atanasoff's marriage to Lura Meeks Atanasoff ended in

Survivors include his wife, Alice Crosby Atanasoff of
Monrovia; three children from his first marriage, Elsie A. Whistler
of Rockville, Joanne A. Gathers of Mission Viejo, Calif., and John
V. Atanasoff II of Boulder, Colo.; four sisters; three brothers; 10
grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.


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