The Father of the Electronic Digital Computer John Vincent Atanasoff(1903 - 1995)
Biography • John Vincent Atanasoff, born October 4th, 1903, was one of nine children. Atanasoff’s early childhood years were very normal; he was a good student with a keen interest in sports, especially baseball. However, at age nine, Atanasoff’s interest in sports began to fade and his interests in mathematics began to grow when he discovered his father’s discarded slide rule. 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. • Graduating from high school in two short years, Atanasoff entered the University of Florida in Gainesville. Here he received his Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering. Atanasoff continued his education at the Iowa State College, where he earned a master's degree in mathematics. Also at Iowa State College, Atanasoff met is Lura Meeks, who he married a few days after receiving his masters degree. • Atanasoff left his position as a professor of mathematics and physics at Iowa State in 1941 for a defense-related position with the Navy. The time away from his wife eventually led to their divorce in 1949. A year latter, he married Alice Crosby. Atanasoff’s involvement with the defense industry continued until late 1951. • In 1952, he started his own company, The Ordnance Engineering Corporation, a research and engineering company. He later sold his business but continued to work there until 1961, when he retired. • After a long illness, Atanasoff died of a stroke on 15 June 1995 at his home in Maryland.
The Beginnings • While working on his doctoral thesis, Atanasoff had his first experience in serious computing. He spent hours on a Monroe calculator, one of the most advanced calculating machines of the time. While working with the Monroe, Atanasoff began to develop an interest in developing a better and faster computing machine. • Atanasoff began his endeavor in 1930. For the first six years, he examined the mathematical devices available at the time. He also conducted numerous experiments with vacuum tubes and radio, and studied the field of electronics. • In 1936, Atanasoff along with this colleague Glen Murphy, developed the Laplaciometer, a small analog calculator. Its purpose was to analyze the geometry of surfaces. Unfortunately, The Laplaciometer failed to meet Atanasoff’s expectations. Atanasoff believed that his machine had the same flaws as other analog devices, where accuracy was dependent upon the performance of other parts of the machine. His self confessed failure did not discourage Atanasoff’s desire; instead it created an obsession. • In 1937, a frustrated Atanasoff jumped into is car and began to drive, with no destination in mind. Nearly two hundred miles latter, Atanasoff found himself at a bar in Illinois. After a drink of bourbon and some time, Atanasoff began to generate the ideas for his machine. • An excited Atanasoff returned to Iowa and received a grant in amount of $650 from the university to build his machine. With this grant, along with a promising young engineering student named Clifford E. Berry, Atanasoff began construction of his computer.
The First Computer • After a two year commitment, Atanasoff and Berry completed the construction of the Atanasoff-Berry Computer, or ABC for short. • “The computer weighed more than seven hundred pounds. The internals of the machine contained approximately 1 mile of wire, 280 dual-triode vacuum tubes, 31 thyratrons, and was about the size of a desk”. • The ABC was the first to untilize three major ideas that are still used in todays computers: • 1. It used binary digits to represent all numbers and data • 2. Preformed all calculations using electronics rather than wheels, rachets, or mechanical switches • 3. Organizing a system in which computation and memory are separated • “The memory was a pair of drums, each containing 1600 capacitors that rotated on a common shaft once per second. The capacitors on each drum were organized into 32 "bands" of 50 (30 active bands and 2 spares in case a capacitor failed), giving the machine a speed of 30 additions/subtractions per second”.
The Theft of an Idea • Although the ABC was built in the basement of Iowa State College, it did not go unnoticed. John W. Mauchly from the University of Pennsylvania's Moore School of Electrical Engineering visited Atanasoff in July/August of 1941. Mauchly was very eager to learn all he could about the ABC. According to Atanasoff, Mauchly viewed the inner workings of the ABC, examined design diagrams, and discussed the computer at length with both Atanasoff and Berry. • In the winter of 1941, both Atanasoff and Berry abandoned working on the ABC and took defense positions within the United States armed forces to support the war effort. The patenting of the ABC was left in the hands of the university and its lawyer. Although the patent paperwork was filed, the process was never completed. • Mauchly returned to the University of Pennsylvania with the newly acquired knowledge in hand. He, along with J. Presper Eckert, then began construction of another computer, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC for short. Mauchly and Eckert completed the construction of the ENIAC in 1946. • Unlike Atanasoff and Berry, Mauchly and Eckert’s patents for the ENIAC were filed with government. They then sold the patent rights, and through a series of mergers and acquisitions, the rights fell into the hands of the Sperry Rand Corporation.
The Trial • Mauchly and Eckert’s patents covered many of the integral parts used in computers. Thus, any company that wished to buy or build a computer were subject to paying royalties. • In early 1967, a challenge to the Mauchly and Eckert’s patents, or the ENIAC patents as they are called, was brought against the the Sperry Rand Corporation by Honeywell Company of Minneapolis stating that there was "prior public use" of ENIAC ideas, and thus the patents are invalid. • Atanasoff was the key witness against the validity of the ENIAC patents. While being questioned, Atanasoff told of his conversations and meetings with Mauchly, and of Mauchly’s exposure to the ABC. Atanasoff’s testimony was more than adequate as he included even the smallest details. His details he provided of the events made even Mauchly “…comment of Atanasoff’s keen memory”. • Mauchly did not fare as well under questioning as Atanasoff did. His recollection of his visits with Atanasoff were vague. His testimony differed from his deposition, and the lawyers for Honeywell Company caught on to it.
Recognition at Last • The trial was one of the most lengthily in United States history. It consumed 135 days, starting on June 1st, 1971 until October 19th, 1973. • Its length is only shadowed by the amount of witnesses it entailed. In total, “seventy-seven witnesses had given oral testimony, and an additional eighty witnesses were presented through deposition transcripts”. • Judge Larson announced the formal opinion of the court on October 19th, 1973. According to the court, it was undeniably clear that Mauchly’s designs for the ENIAC were “derived from Atanasoff, and the invention claimed in ENIAC was derived from Atanasoff." Judge Larson further stated that "Eckert and Mauchly did not themselves first invent the automatic electronic digital computer, but instead derived that subject matter from one Dr. John Vincent Atanasoff”. • Not only were the ENIAC patents found invalid, but the recognition that had escaped both Atanasoff and Berry, the recognition that they were each entitled too, was finally bestowed upon them.
Impact • The technological principals invented by Atanasoff and Berry in the construction of the Atanasoff-Berry Computer are still used in today’s computers.. • Computers have become ingrained in our every days lives. Most people would be hard pressed to find a person or business without some type of computer; whether it be a cell phone, cash register, lab top or mainframe. We have become dependent upon computers for communications, design, mathematics, and science; just to name a few. They have changed the way we do business and make transactions. Some would even argue that computers are changing the foundations of our economic structure. • Atanasoff and Berry’s invention gave birth to a new era in civilization, and has changed the way we live forever, all from a basement in Iowa.
Pictures of the ABC and Useful Web Links Clifford Berry with the ABC Replica of the ABC For a detailed description of the workings Atanasoff-Berry Computer, please click on the link: http://www.scl.ameslab.gov/ABC/Video.html