John Atanasoff

atanasoffJohn Atanasoff, a professor of mathematics and physics at Iowa State College, built an electronic binary computer that represents the first applications of electronics to automatic calculation. Despite never being fully operational, his ideas were major contributions to modern electronic computers. He was long familiar with the problems of solving complex linear equations, and in the 1930s began investigating the use of electronics to provide a device that would be faster and more efficient.

In 1937, Atanasoff devises the architecture and with the help of a colleague, Clifford Berry, completes a prototype in 1939. Known as the Atanasoff-Berry Computer (ABC), it has all of the fundamental elements of the modern electronic computer. John Mauchly would later learn of it and visit Atanasoff. The ABC never ran without an error, and he abandoned the project when he took on some war related work. He later won a court case in 1973 concluding he is the official inventor of the electronic computer, a title that actually belongs to more than one person or perhaps Konrad Zuse.

Atanasoff-Berry Computer

abcConceived by John Atanasoff in 1937, the Atanasoff-Berry (or ABC) Computer was one of the first modern electronic digital computers. Designed to solve linear equations, it was tested in 1942. It formed the foundation of many modern computing concepts including binary arithmetic and electronic switching. Work was discontinued in the early 1940s due to Atanasoff moving on to working on assignments for the War Department during World War II.

Atanasoff created many of the key functions of the ABC during a nighttime drive in the winter of 1937. Such ideas as parallel processing and a separation of memory and computing functions was the outcome of this historic car ride. Over the following year mechanical and logic design was worked out and a grant was awarded to build a prototype. Together with graduate student Clifford Berry, Atanasoff built the machine in the basement of the Iowa State college physics building from 1939-1942.

The prototype was demonstrated in Oct.,1939. It weighed a whopping seven hundred pounds and was 800 square feet. With 1 mile of wire and 280 vacuum tubes, it was the size of an office desk. In comparison to other machines before and after, it was not programmable and was built for a particular purpose. The machine was not recognized for many years, causing the ENIAC to be considered the first modern computer in the U.S. until 1973 when a U.S. District Court ruled the ENIAC patent was submitted after the creation of the ABC.