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Inventors Clifford Berry

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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.
Clifford Berry and John Atanasoff
Clifford Berry
John Atanasoff
Reference Material
Court Case

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, and Barbara.

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 father's supervision.

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 been fired.

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 a 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 Director.

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

Reference Material
Technical 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.

Atanasoff-Berry 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.

Illustrations Related Innovations
History of Computers

©Mary Bellis

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