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John Vincent Atanasoff

October 4, 1903, Hamilton, New York, USA
June 15, 1995, New Market, Maryland, USA

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Achievement

John Vincent Atanasoff was born on 4 October 1903 in Hamilton, New York. He is the inventor of the electronic digital computer. He is, along with being an Inventor, a Mathematical Physicist and a Businessman.

 

Biography

In any science field, there needs to be a person with the vision to define the future. John Vincent Atanasoff was a genius with such a vision. He developed the first electronic digital computer that has dramatically changed our lives. John Vincent Atanasoff gave birth to the field of electronic computing. In doing so, he also gave birth to a new era, an era of computers.

Today, the computer is an essential part of every person as well as every business. We cannot imagine our lives without a computer being involved. Turning on the TV, making a telephone call, and typing up a report all involves the use of a computer. The invention of the computer meant that technology could improve at a faster rate and our lives became more convenient and more safe.

Take for instance the use of computers in our cars. Anti-lock brakes, air bags, and fuel injections are all controlled by a computer. These advancements make the car safer and more reliable. Computers can also be found in banks, schools, airplanes, businesses, space shuttles, satellites, and numerous other things. In today's society, almost everything involves the use of a computer.

The electronic age is the direct result of the invention of the computer. Never before in the history of humanity has there been an invention that grown so quickly as the computer has. Within the last twenty years, the speed and power of the computer has grown at an exponential rate.

When John Vincent Atanasoff invented the computer, he probably did not know how much of an impact it would have on people's lives. Computers will be involved in every aspect of technology, and it will continue to be a part of technologies to come. The capabilities of computers are advancing every day. Soon, a computer will become more like the human brain than an electronic machine. Computers will take us to Mars, and get us back safely. Computers will always be on the edge of technology and anyone that learns to harness its power will be an important part of the future. Every aspect of our lives has changed because on the computer and its inventor, John Vincent Atanasoff.

The first electronic computer with vacuum tubes is constructed by  John Atanasoffen Clifford Berry of the Iowa State College. The Atanasoff-Berry computer was the first digital computer, built during 1937-1942, and introduced the concepts of binary arithmetic, regenerative memory, and logic circuits. This machine will never reach the production stage and remain a prototype.

John Vincent Atanasoff is the first son of John Atanasoff and Iva Lucena Purdy. At a very early age, John Vincent Atanasoff had a great interest in mathematics. When John Vincent was about ten years old, he was curious in a Dietzgen slide rule that his father had bought. John Vincent read the instructions on how to use the slide rule, and he became more interested in the mathematical principles of the slide rule. With the help of his mother, John Vincent began to study a college algebra book that belonged to his father.

In the years that followed, John Vincent's family moved to Old Chicora, Florida. John Vincent studied at Mulberry High School and graduated in two years. He received A's is all of his science and math courses. John Vincent did not enter into college right away because he wanted to work and save money. In 1921 John Vincent entered the University of Florida as an undergraduate. John Vincent graduated from the University of Florida in 1925 with a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering. He received straight A's as an undergraduate.

John Vincent Atanasoff then went to Iowa State College to pursue his master's degree. At Iowa State, John Vincent met his future wife, Lura Meeks. At the time, John Vincent did not know that she was three years his senior. John Vincent received his master's degree in mathematics from Iowa State College in 1926. Within a few days of receiving his degree, John Vincent and Lura Meeks were married.

After receiving his master's degree, John Vincent went to the University of Wisconsin for his doctorate in theoretic physics. In the same year that John Vincent was accepted as a doctoral candidate, his wife gave birth to their eldest daughter, Elsie. In 1930, John Vincent Atanasoff received his Ph.D. as a theoretic physicist from the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Atanasoff then returned to Iowa State College as an assistant professor in mathematics and physics in 1936.

Dr. Atanasoff had always been interested in finding new ways to perform mathematical computations faster. Dr. Atanasoff examined many of the computational devices that existed at that time. These included the Monroe calculator and the International Business Machines (IBM) tabulator. Dr. Atanasoff concluded that these devices were slow and inaccurate.

After being promoted to associate professor of mathematics and physics, Dr. Atanasoff began to envision a computational device that was "digital." He believed that analog devices were too restrictive and could not get the type of accuracy he wanted. The idea of building an electronic digital computer came to him while he was sitting in a tavern. Dr. Atanasoff came up with four principles for his electronic digital computer.

    • He would use electricity and electronics as the medium for the computer.
    • In spite of custom, he would use base-two numbers (the binary system for his computer.
    • He would use condensers for memory and would use a regenerative or "jogging" process to avoid lapses that might be caused by leakage of power.
    • He would compute by direct logical action and not by enumeration as used in analog calculating devices. (Mollenhoff, 34)

As Dr. Atanasoff worked on his computer project, he asked a colleague to recommend a graduate student to assist him with his project. The graduate student that was introduced to him was Clifford Berry. Berry was gifted electrical engineer and had very similar background as Dr. Atanasoff did. They both got along almost immediately.

In December 1939, the first prototype of the Atanasoff Berry Computer (ABC) was ready. The ABC showed some of the potentials of a computer and it amazed the University. So in 1939, Dr. Atanasoff and his assistant Clifford Berry built the world's first electronic digital computer. With the first prototype working well, Dr. Atanasoff wanted to improve on prototype as well as get patents for the Atanasoff Berry Computer. Obtaining the patents were a slow process that ultimately caused Dr. Atanasoff the recognition that he deserved.

In 1940 Dr. Atanasoff attended a lecture given by Dr. John W. Mauchly. They talked for some time and Dr. Mauchly was very intrigued with Dr. Atanasoff's electronic digital computer. Dr. Mauchly wanted to see the ABC for himself and Dr. Atanasoff agreed. This decision by Dr. Atanasoff would be a mistake since Dr. Mauchly later used many of Dr. Atanasoff's ideas in the design of the ENIAC. The ENIAC is falsely considered by most people as the world's first electronic digital computer designed by Dr. Mauchly and Dr. Eckert. Charges of piracy were later brought against Dr. Mauchly, co-inventor of the ENIAC. A long trial followed and it was not until 1972 that Dr. Atanasoff was given the recognition he so deserved. U.S. District Judge Earl R. Larson ruled that the ENIAC was "derived" from the ideas of Dr. Atanasoff. Although Judge Larson did not explicitly say that Dr. Mauchly "stole" Dr. Atanasoff's ideas, Judge Larson did say that Dr. Mauchly had used many of Dr. Atanasoff's ideas on the ABC to design the ENIAC. When the trial finally ended, Dr. Atanasoff was given credit as the inventor of the electronic digital computer.

Clark Mollenhoff in his book, Atanasoff, Forgotten Father of the Computer, details the design and construction of the Atanasoff-Berry Computer with emphasis on the relationships of the individuals. Alice and Arthur Burks in their book, The First Electronic Computer: The Atanasoff Story, describe the design and construction of the ABC and provide a more technical perspective. Numerous articles provide additional information. In recognition of his achivement, Atanasoff was awarded the National Medal of Technology by President George Bush at the White house on November 13, 1990.

Dr. John Vincent Atanasoff died 15 June 1995 of a stroke at his home in Monrovia, Md. He was 91 years old. Although Dr. Atanasoff was not able to get a patent for the ABC, he held 32 patents for his other inventions.

In 1973 the ENIAC patent is invalidated, crediting John Vincent Atanasoff [b. Hamilton, New York, October 4, 1903, d. New Market, Maryland, June 15, 1995] as the originator of the modern computer.(5)

Chronology

1926-29

Iowa State College, Mathematics,

1929-1930

Graduate Assistant and Instructor, University of Wisconsin, Mathematics, Instructor

1930-36

Iowa State College, Mathematics and Physics, Assistant Professor

1936-42

Associate Professor

1942-45

Professor in Absentia,

1942-1945

U.S. Naval Ordnance Lab., Washington, D.C., Chief, Acoustics Section,

1945-48

Chief, Acoustics Division,

1949

U.S. Army Field Forces, Ft. Monroe, VA, Chief Scientist

1949-52

Naval Ordnance Lab., Director, Fuse Program

1959-61

The Ordnance Engineering Corp., Frederick, MD, Founder, President, Director,

1961-80

Cybernetics, Inc., Frederick, MD, President,

1961-63

Stewart-Warner Corp., Consultant,

1967-71

Control Data Corp., Consultant

1967-71

Honeywell, Consultant

1973

Got recognized as the inventor of the modern computer by a verdict of judge Earl Larson of the US District Court in Minneapolis denying Mauchly and Eckert their patent. Whom by the way kept fighting this verdict

 

Honors and Awards

 

  • U.S. Navy Distinguished Service Award (Navy's highest honor awarded to civilians), 1945;Citation, Seismological Society of America, 1947;
  • Citation, Admiral, Bureau of Ordnance, 1947;
  • Cosmos Club membership, 1957;
  • Order of Cyril and Methodius, First Class, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (Bulgaria's highest honor accorded a scientist), 1970;
  • Iowa Inventors Hall of Fame; Plaque, Iowa State University Physics Building, 1974;
  • Honorary Membership, Society for Computer Medicine, 1974;
  • Doctor of Science, Moravian College, 1981;
  • Distinguished Achievement Citation, Iowa State University Alumni Association, 1983;
  • Doctor of Science, Western Maryland College;
  • National Medal of Technology given by President George Bush, 1990

 

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