Atanasoff Featured Story ABC:
John Atanasoff and Clifford Berry Determining who was first in the
computing biz is not always as easy as ABC. Our in-depth feature covers
the story behind the Atanasoff-Berry Computer and John
Atanasoff and Clifford Berry.
John Atanasoff was born on 4 October
1903 a few miles west of Hamilton, New York. His father was a Bulgarian
immigrant named Ivan Atanasov. His last name was changed to Atanasoff by
immigration officials at Ellis Island when he arrived with an uncle in
1889, and later on, his first name was changed to John.
John Atanasoff's mother was Iva Lucena
Purdy, a mathematics schoolteacher. His parents had nine children (one
of whom died): John, Ethelyn, Margaret, Theodore, Avis, Raymond, Melva,
Irving. After John Vincent's birth, his father accepted an electrical engineering
position is Osteen, Florida, and subsequently, in Brewster, Florida. It
was here that John Atanasoff completed grade school and started understanding
the concepts of electricity. The Atanasoff home in Brewster was the first
house they lived in with electricity, and John Atanasoff, as a 9-year-old
boy found and corrected faulty electric wiring in a back-porch light.
Atanasoff's grade school years were
very normal. He was a good student and had a youthful interest in sports,
specially baseball. This interest in baseball faded when his father purchased
a new Dietzgen slide rule to help him at his job; John Atanasoff became
totally fascinated with it. He carefully read the instructions, and was
amazed that he could get correct answers. His father soon discovered that
he didn't have an immediate need for the slide rule, and it was soon forgotten
by everyone except young John.
He soon became interested in the
mathematical principles behind the operation of the slide rule and the
study of logarithms; this led to studies in trigonometric functions. With
the help of his mother, he read A College Algebra, by J.M. Taylor.
This book included a beginning study on differential calculus and also
had a chapter on infinite series and how to calculate logarithms. Within
a few months, the precocious 9-year-old had progressed beyond the point
of needing help. During this time, John Atanasoff learned about number
bases other than ten from his mother; this led him to study a wide range
of bases, including base-two.
When Atanasoff was to enter high
school, the family moved to a farm in Old Chicora, Florida. He completed
the Mulberry High School course in two years, excelling in science and
mathematics. He had, by then, decided he wanted to be a theoretic physicist.
In 1921, he entered the University of Florida in Gainesville. Since the
university did not offer a degree in theoretic physics, he started taking
electrical engineering courses. While taking these courses, he became interested
in electronics and continued onto higher mathematics. He graduated from
the University of Florida in 1925 with a Bachelor of Science degree in
electrical engineering. He had a straight "A" academic average. Even though
he had many offers of teaching fellowships, including one from Harvard,
he accepted the one from Iowa State College, because it was the first one
he received and because of the institution's fine reputation in engineering
So it was, that one day in the summer
of 1925 the 22-year-old boarded the train that took him to Ames, Iowa,
home of Iowa State College. He was ready to make his mark in the world
of science. From September to November he was busy working on his master's
degree and teaching two undergraduate mathematics classes. Even though
his social life was minimal due to his busy schedule, he was familiar with
one campus organization, the Dixie Club, a club organized for southern
students away from home. One evening, he decided to drop by the club to
see what was going on. There he met Lura Meeks, a beautiful, brown-haired,
blue-eyed 25-year-old home economics major from Oklahoma. This chance meeting
led to another date, and then another. Soon they were best friends, seeking
each other's company.
In June 1926, Atanasoff received
his master's degree in mathematics from Iowa State College, and a few days
later, he married Lura. Iowa State had hired him to teach mathematics;
Lura had not yet completed the work for her degree in home economics, and
she had signed a contract to teach school during the 1926-1927 school year
in Montana so she could save enough money to complete the year she needed
for that degree. Midway through the school year, she decided to break her
teaching contract to return to Ames to be with her husband. A little over
a year later, their oldest daughter Elsie, was born. When Elsie was one,
the family moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where John had been accepted as
a doctoral candidate. Two other children, Joanne and John, were later born
to the couple. The work on his doctoral thesis, "The Dielectric Constant
of Helium," gave Atanasoff his first experience in serious computing. He
spent hours on a Monroe calculator, one of the most advanced calculating
machines of the time. During the hard weeks of calculations to complete
his thesis Atanasoff acquired an interest in developing a better and faster
computing machine. After receiving his Ph.D. in theoretical physics in
July 1930, he returned to Iowa State College with a determination to try
to create a faster, better computing machine.
In the fall of 1930 he became a member
of the Iowa State College faculty as assistant professor in mathematics
and physics. With his academic background, Atanasoff felt he was well equipped
to try to figure out how to develop a way of doing the complicated math
problems he had encounted during his doctoral thesis, in a faster, more
efficient way. During the period that he was doing experiments with vacuum
tubes and radio, and examining the field of electronics, he was promoted
to associate professor of both mathematics and physics and moved from Beardshear
Hall to the Physics Building.
After examining many mathematical
devices available at the time, Atanasoff concluded that they fell into
two classes--analog and digital. Since the term "digital" was not used
until much later, Atanasoff contrasted the analog devices to what he called
"computing machines proper." In 1936 he engaged in his last effort to construct
a small analog calculator. With Glen Murphy, then an atomic physicist at
Iowa State College, he built the "Laplaciometer," a small analog calculator.
It was used for analyzing the geometry of surfaces. Atanasoff regarded
this machine as having the same flaws as other analog devices, where accuracy
was dependent upon the performance of other parts of the machine.
The obsession of finding a solution
to the computer problem had built to a frenzy in the winter months of 1937.
One night, frustrated after many discouraging events, he got into his car
and started driving without destination. Two hundred miles later, he pulled
onto a roadhouse in the state of Illinois. Here, he had a drink of bourbon
and continued thinking about the creation of the machine. No longer nervous
and tense, he realized that this thoughts were coming together clearly.
He began generating ideas on how to build this computer! After receiving
a grant of $650 from Iowa State College in March 1939, Atanasoff was ready
to embark in this exciting adventure. To help him accomplish his goal,
he hired a particularly bright electrical engineering student, Clifford
E. Berry. From 1939 until 1941they worked at developing and improving the
ABC, Atanasoff-Berry Computer, as it was later named. When World War II
started on 7 December 1941, the work on the computer came to a halt. Although
Iowa State College had hired a Chicago patent lawyer, Richard R. Trexler,
the patenting of the ABC was never completed.
In September of 1939, John Atanasoff
left Ames, Iowa and Iowa State on leave for a defense-related position
at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in Washington, D.C. (Clifford Berry had
accepted a defense-related job in California).
He thought he would spend a few months,
or at most, a few years, in government and then return to Iowa State College
to, hopefully, become a department head. Lura and their three children
remained in Ames, but he made frequent trips home to see his family.
He had become Chief of the Acoustics
Division at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory, a position that was paying him
a salary well above the $10,000 cap on government salaries at the time.
He was in charge of developing a computer for the United States Navy. At
the same time, he became involved in the first atomic test in the Pacific,
a project that he liked very much.
In 1948, on one of his return visits
to Ames, he was surprised and disappointed to learn that the Atanasoff-Berry
Computer had been removed from the Physics Building and dismantled. Neither
he nor Clifford Berry had been notified that the computer was going to
be destroyed. Only a few parts of the computer were saved.
The long separation from his family
was beginning to take its toll. He and Lura had drifted apart. In 1949
they were divorced and Lura moved with the children to Denver, Colorado.
In the same year, John Atanasoff married Alice Crosby, an Iowan who had
also gone to Washington to work during the war years.
In 1949, Atanasoff became chief scientist
for the Army Field Forces in Fort Monroe, Virginia. After one year, he
returned to Washington as director of the Navy Fuse Program at the Naval
Ordnance Laboratory. He stayed in that position until late 1951. In 1952
he established The Ordnance Engineering Corporation, a research and engineering
company in Rockville, Maryland, with his old friend and student, David
Beecher. The company was sold to Aerojet General Corporation in 1957, and
he became Manager of its Atlantic Division from 1957-1959 and Vice President
from 1959-1961. In 1961 he retired. In 1974, John Atanasoff returned to
Iowa State University (the name changed to "university" in 1959) to be
guest of honor and grand marshall for the largest student-run celebration
in the nation: Veisha. The acronym stands for the first letters of study
at the university: Veterinary Medicine, Engineering, Industrial Science,
Home Economics, and Agriculture. The festival usually attracts more than
250,000 people. He attended with his wife Alice and two of his children:
Joanne and John and their respective families. Elsie was in Indonesia with
her husband and was unable to attend.
After a long illness, John Atanasoff
died of a stroke on 15 June 1995 at his home in Maryland.
Biographical Information and Photos
Provided by Ames Laboratory, Department of Energy
Explanation of The ABC Computer The A-B Computer used dynamic storage
for its main memory, requiring periodic "refresh" to remind if of its binary
state, as do today's dynamic RAM chips. Atanasoff considered using relays,
magnetic core memory, vacuum tubes, and charged capacitors to store each
bit of memory; he finally decided on the latter, on the basis of the cost/performance.
Computer Replica The Atanasoff-Berry Computer was
the first electronic digital computer. The original ABC was dismantled
decades ago. Ames Laboratory, using private funding, is building a working
replica of this historically important invention.
Court Case The 1946, ENIAC
Computer was long thought to have been the first electronic computer
and the inventors, J. Presper Eckert and John W. Mauchly were the first
to patent a digital computing device - - but a 1973, patent infringement
case (Sperry Rand Vs. Honeywell), voided the ENIAC patent as a derivative
of Atanasoff's invention.