John Vincent Atanasoff
Atanasoff, in the 1990s.
|Died||June 15, 1995 (aged 91)|
|Known for||Atanasoff-Berry Computer|
|Awards||Order of Saints Cyril and Methodius, First Class|
|Doctoral advisor||J. H. V. Vleck|
John Vincent Atanasoff (October 4, 1903 - June 15, 1995) was an American physicist and inventor, best known for being credited with inventing the first electronic digital computer.
Atanasoff invented the first electronic digital computer in the 1930s at Iowa State College. Challenges to his claim were resolved in 1973 when the Honeywell v. Sperry Rand lawsuit ruled that Atanasoff was the inventor of the computer. His special-purpose machine has come to be called the Atanasoff-Berry Computer.
Atanasoff was born on October 4, 1903 in Hamilton, New York to an electrical engineer and a school teacher. Atanasoff's father, Ivan Atanasoff was of Bulgarian origin, born in 1876 in the village of Boyadzhik, close to Yambol, then in Ottoman Empire. While Ivan was still an infant, Ivan's own father was killed by Ottoman soldiers after the Bulgarian April Uprising. In 1889, Ivan Atanasov immigrated to the United States with his uncle. Atanasoff's father later became an electrical engineer, whereas his mother, Iva Lucena Purdy (of mixed French and Irish ancestry), was a teacher of mathematics. Young Atanasoff's ambitions and intellectual pursuits were in part influenced by his parents, whose interests in the natural and applied sciences cultivated in him a sense of critical curiosity and confidence.
Atanasoff was raised in Brewster, Florida. At the age of nine he learned to use a slide rule, followed shortly by the study of logarithms, and subsequently completed high school at Mulberry High School in two years. In 1925, Atanasoff received his bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from the University of Florida, graduating with straight A's.
He continued his education at Iowa State College and in 1926 earned a master's degree in mathematics. He completed his formal education in 1930 by earning a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with his thesis, The Dielectric Constant of Helium. Upon completion of his doctorate, Atanasoff accepted an assistant professorship at Iowa State College in mathematics and physics.
Partly due to the drudgery of using the mechanical Monroe calculator, which was the best tool available to him while he was writing his doctoral thesis, Atanasoff began to search for faster methods of computation. At Iowa State, Atanasoff researched the use of slaved Monroe calculators and IBM tabulators for scientific problems. In 1936 he invented an analog calculator for analyzing surface geometry. The fine mechanical tolerance required for good accuracy pushed him to consider digital solutions.
With a grant of $650 received in September 1939 and the assistance of his graduate student Clifford Berry, the Atanasoff-Berry Computer (ABC) was prototyped by November of that year. According to Atanasoff, several operative principles of the ABC were conceived by him during the winter of 1938 after a drive to Rock Island, Illinois.
The key ideas employed in the ABC included binary math and Boolean logic to solve up to 29 simultaneous linear equations. The ABC had no central processing unit (CPU), but was designed as an electronic device using vacuum tubes for digital computation. It also had regenerative capacitor memory that operated by a process similar to that used today in DRAM memory.
Atanasoff first met Mauchly at the December 1940 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Philadelphia, where Mauchly was demonstrating his "harmonic analyzer", an analog calculator for analysis of weather data. Atanasoff told Mauchly about his new digital device and invited him to see it.
In June 1941 Mauchly visited Atanasoff in Ames, Iowa for four days, staying as his houseguest. Atanasoff and Mauchly discussed the prototype ABC, examined it, and reviewed Atanasoff's design manuscript. In September 1942 Atanasoff left Iowa State for a wartime assignment as Chief of the Acoustic Division with the Naval Ordnance Laboratory (NOL) in Washington, D.C.; no patent application for the ABC was subsequently filed by Iowa State College.
Mauchly visited Atanasoff multiple times in Washington during 1943 and discussed computing theories, but did not mention that he was working on a computer project himself until early 1944.
By 1945 the U.S. Navy had decided to build a large scale computer, on the advice of John von Neumann. Atanasoff was put in charge of the project, and he asked Mauchly to help with job descriptions for the necessary staff. However, Atanasoff was also given the responsibility for designing acoustic systems for monitoring atomic bomb tests. That job was made the priority, and by the time he returned from the testing at Bikini Atoll in July 1946, the NOL computer project was shut down due to lack of progress, again on the advice of von Neumann.
In June 1954 IBM patent attorney A.J. Etienne sought Atanasoff's help in breaking an Eckert-Mauchly patent on a revolving magnetic memory drum, having been alerted by Clifford Berry that the ABC's revolving capacitor memory drum may have constituted prior art. Atanasoff agreed to assist the attorney, but IBM ultimately entered a patent-sharing agreement with Sperry Rand, the owners of the Eckert-Mauchly memory patent, and the case was dropped.
Atanasoff was deposed and testified at trial in the later action Honeywell v. Sperry Rand. In that case's decision, Judge Earl R. Larson found 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".
Between 1954 and 1973, Atanasoff was a witness in the legal actions brought by various parties to invalidate electronic computing patents issued to John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert, which were owned by computer manufacturer Sperry Rand. In the 1973 decision of Honeywell v. Sperry Rand, a federal judge named Atanasoff the inventor of the electronic digital computer.
Following World War II Atanasoff remained with the government and developed specialized seismographs and microbarographs for long-range explosive detection. In 1952 he founded and led the Ordnance Engineering Corporation, selling the company to Aerojet General Corporation in 1956 and becoming Aerojet's Atlantic Division president.
In 1960 Atanasoff and his wife Alice moved to their hilltop farm in New Market, Maryland for their retirement. In 1961 he started another company, Cybernetics Incorporated, in Frederick, Maryland which he operated for 20 years. He was gradually drawn into the legal disputes being contested by the fast-growing computer companies Honeywell and Sperry Rand. Following the resolution of Honeywell v. Sperry Rand, Atanasoff was warmly honored by Iowa State College, which had since become Iowa State University, and more awards followed.
Atanasoff died in 1995 of a stroke at his home after a lengthy illness. He is buried in Pine Grove Cemetery in Mount Airy, Maryland.
Atanasov visited Bulgaria twice, in 1975 and 1985. He visited Boyadzik village, where his grandfather was shot by the Turks and was warmly welcomed by the locals and his father's relatives. He was made an honorable citizen of the town of Yambol, and received the "Key of the Town". He was also given various titles by the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. The John Atanasov prize is awarded every year in Bulgaria. The 3546 Atanasoff asteroid found at the Bulgarian astronomic observatory of Rozen, was named after him.
Atanasoff's first national award for scientific achievements was the Order of Saints Cyril and Methodius, First Class, Bulgaria's highest scientific honor bestowed to him in 1970, before the 1973 court ruling.
Other distinctions awarded to Atanasoff include:
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