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.
Clifford Berry (1918 - 1963)
Clifford Berry was born in Gladbrook,
Iowa on 19 April 1918 to Fred Gordon Berry and Grace Strohm. He was the
oldest of four children born to the couple: Clifford, Keith, Frederick,
When Clifford Berry was a small child,
his father Fred had an electrical appliance and repair store in Gladbrook,
where he had several electrical projects. By far the greatest of his projects
was a radio--the first radio in Gladbrook.
This prompted a stream of town visitors
to get a glimpse at the machine. Fred taught his son about the construction
of the radio and it was here that Clifford started tinkering with electricity
and radio. When he was eleven, he built his first ham radio, under his
From an early age, Clifford Berry
was a precocious child. His second grade teacher and the school principal
suggested to his parents that he be moved a grade ahead. Fred and Grace
Berry resisted for two years, until the principal argued again that Clifford
needed to be challenged. He was allowed to skip the fourth grade.
When he was 11 years old, the family
moved to the small town of Marengo, Iowa, where his father had accepted
a position as manager of the Marengo office for Iowa Power Company. During
Clifford's sophomore year at Marengo High School, where he continued to
excel academically, his father was shot and killed by an employee who had
At Fred Berry's death, Grace decided
the family would remain in Marengo until Clifford was ready to attend Iowa
State College. At that time, they would all move to Ames, home of the college.
From as early as his family could remember, Clifford Berry had aspired
to study electrical engineering. His father had decided that Iowa State
College was the college for Berry, since its College of Engineering had
good reputation around the nation.
From the beginning of his college
years, Clifford Berry's record as a student of electrical engineering was
impressive. He received his B.S. in Electrical Engineering in 1939. Professor
Harold Anderson was a professor of electrical engineering and one of John
Atanasoff's best friends. He was also one of the many people that was impressed
by Clifford Berry's brilliance and capacity. Thus, when Atanasoff asked
him if he could recommend a graduate student in electrical engineering
to assist him in his computer-machine project, Professor Anderson immediately
thought of Clifford Berry. When Clifford Berry called Professor Atanasoff
to tell him that he was interested in the job, John Atanasoff realized
that he was dealing with an unusual young man.
So, on a morning in the spring of
1939, the two brilliant men had their first conversation about the concepts
and the basic problems they would have to solve in the construction of
the prototype of an electronic digital computer.
The construction of the prototype
moved ahead with great speed and as soon as it was completed it worked
well. It settled their doubts that an electronic computer could be built.
In December 1939 a demonstration of the prototype to Iowa State College
officials convinced them that Atanasoff's project was worthy of a grant
of $850 from the Iowa State College Research Council to construct a full-scale
machine capable of solving systems of equations. Work on that machine started
after the Christmas holidays.
By late spring the project was well
under way, and consideration was given to the fact that steps needed to
be taken to patent the machine, as well as requesting additional funding
for its completion. A 35-page manuscript Computing Machines for the
Solution of Large Systems of Linear Algebraic Equations, complete with
drawings of the machine, was written by Atanasoff, with Berry's assistance.
One copy of this manuscript was sent in late 1940 to Chicago patent lawyer,
Richard R. Trexler, who had been hired by Iowa State College to give them
advice on how to protect the inventions that were incorporated into the
Atanasoff Berry Computer.
When World War II began, the work
on the computer came to a halt. Atanasoff left Ames, Iowa, on leave from
Iowa State for a defense-related position at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory
in Washington, D.C. He left the task of completing the patenting of the
ABC to university officials.
It was while Clifford Berry was a
graduate student in physics and was working as a graduate assistant on
the ABC that he met Martha Jean Reed, also an Iowa State graduate who was
working in the Physics Department as secretary to John Atanasoff. The couple
wed in May 30, 1942 in Ames, Iowa. They had two children, Carol and David.
Clifford Berry received his M.S.
in Physics in 1941. After their marriage in 1942, the couple left Iowa
for a defense-related job he had been offered with Consolidated Engineering
Corporation in Pasadena, California. Under a special arrangement with Iowa
State, he did his research in absentia and completed the requirements for
the Ph.D. (in physics) in 1948, while employed by C.E.C.
In 1948 he received the doctorate
after presenting a thesis entitled "The Effects of Initial Energies on
Mass Spectra." He became Chief Physicist at C.E.C. in 1949 and Assistant
Director of Research in 1952. He was made Director of Engineering of the
Analytical and Control Division in 1959 and also served as its Technical
In early October 1963 he left C.E.C.
to become Manager of Advanced Development at the Vacuum-Electronics Corporation
in Plainview, New York. He died suddenly on October 30, 1963, before his
family had a chance to join him in New York.
Clifford Berry was issued 19 patents
in the area of mass spectrometry, 11 patents in various areas of vacuum
and electronics and, at the time of his death, had 13 patents pending.
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.
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.
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.
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