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John Vincent Atanasoff

John Vincent Atanasoff

Atanasoff designed and built the first electronic, digital computer (non-programmable)
  Born  October 4, 1903, Hamilton, New York
  Died  June 15, 1995, Frederick, Maryland

John Vincent Atanasoff (October 4,1903June 15,1995) was a prominent American computer engineer of Bulgarian origin. His work was instrumental in the development of the digital computer.

Table of contents

Education

John Atanasoff was raised in Brewster, Florida, the son of an electrical engineer. At the age of nine he learned to use a slide rule, shortly followed by the study of logarithms while still a child, and completed high school in two years. In 1925, Atanasoff received his Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering from the University of Florida. He held the distinction of receiving this grade with straight A's as an undergraduate. 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 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.

Computer development

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. 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. The Atanasoff Berry Computer (ABC) was conceived by the professor in a flash of insight during the winter of 1937-1938. With a grant of $650 received in September 1939 and the assistance of his graduate student Clifford Berry, the ABC was prototyped by November of that year. 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 with vacuum tubes for high speed. It also used separate regenerative capacitor memory, a process still used today in DRAM memory.

Intellectual property entanglement

Atanasoff meets Mauchly

John Atanasoff met John Mauchly at the December 1940 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Philadelphia, where Mauchly was demonstrating his "harmonic analyzer". This was an analog calculator for analysis of weather data. Atanasoff told Mauchly about his new digital device and invited him to see it. Also during the Philadelphia trip, Atanasoff and Berry visited the patent office in Washington, where their research assured them that their concepts were new. A January 15 1941 story in the Des Moines Register announced the ABC as "an electrical computing machine" with more than 300 vacuum tubes that would "compute complicated algebraic equations. In June 1941 Mauchly visited Atanasoff in Ames, Iowa to see the ABC. During his four day visit as Atanasoff's houseguest, Mauchly thoroughly discussed the prototype ABC, examined it, and reviewed Atanasoff's design manuscript in detail. Up to this time Mauchly had not proposed a digital computer. In September 1942 Atanasoff left Iowa State for a wartime assignment with the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in Washington D.C. He entrusted his patent application for the ABC to Iowa State College administrators. It was never filed. Mauchly visited Atanasoff multiple times in Washington during 1943 and discussed Atanasoff's computing theories, but did not mention that he was working on a computer project himself. Mauchly's own government work, he said, was too highly secret to reveal. John Mauchly's construction of ENIAC, the first Turing-complete computer, with J. Presper Eckert during 1943-1946 thus led to the controversy over who was the actual inventor of the computer.

Patent disputed

The dispute over patent rights eventually resulted in a lawsuit filed on May 26, 1967 by Honeywell Inc. against the patent of the ENIAC held by Sperry Rand on behalf of Mauchly and Eckert in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The trial, one of the longest and most expensive in the federal courts to that time, began on June 1 1971, lasted until March 13, 1972, had 77 witnessess, plus 80 depositions and 30,000 exhibits. It was legally resolved on Friday, October 19, 1973, when U.S. District Judge Earl R. Larson held the patent invalid, ruling that the ENIAC derived many basic ideas from the Atanasoff Berry Computer. The decision in Honeywell Inc. v. Sperry Rand Corp. et al., was so well supported that there was no appeal. But the decision received little publicity at the time, perhaps because it was overshadowed by the Watergate Era "Saturday Night Massacre" firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox by President Richard Nixon the next day. While legally vindicated, Atanasoff's victory was incomplete as the ENIAC, rather than the ABC, continues to be widely regarded as the first computer.

Postwar life

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. In 1956 he sold his company to Aerojet General Corporation and became its Atlantic Division president. The ABC computer had become just a memory. It was not until 1954 that he first heard rumors that some of his ideas may have been 'borrowed'. (The ENIAC general patent had been applied for in 1947 but was not granted until 1964.) In 1961 Atanasoff started another company, Cybernetics Incorporated. He was only gradually drawn into the legal disputes being contested by the fast growing computer companies. Following the resolution of the patent case Atanasoff was warmly honored by Iowa State College, which had since become Iowa State University, and more awards followed. He retired in Maryland and died in 1995. John Mauchly, Presper Eckert, and their families never admitted any improper conduct.

Honors and distinctions

Atanasoff's father Ivan had immigrated in 1889 from Bulgaria at the age of 13. In 1970, Atanasoff was invited to Bulgaria by the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, so the Bulgarian Government could confer upon him the Cyrille and Methodius Order of Merit First Class. He was proud that Bulgaria was the first country to recognize his work and has always emphasized on his Bulgarian roots. In 1981, he received the Computer Pioneer Medal from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Atanasoff Hall, a computer science building on the Iowa State campus, is named after him. Finally, in 1990, President George H. W. Bush awarded Atanasoff the United States National Medal of Technology. He has been awarded a number of other distinctions as well. Among these are included:

  • U.S. Navy Distinguished Service Award (1945)
  • Citation, Seismological Society of America (1947)
  • Citation, Admiral, Bureau of Ordnance (1947)
  • Cosmos Club membership (1947)
  • Order of Cyril and Methodius (1970)
  • Doctor of Science (hon.) University of Florida (1974)
  • Honorary membership, Society for Computer Medicine (1974)
  • Iowa Inventors Hall of Fame (1978)
  • Iowa Governor's Science Medal (1985)
  • Order of Bulgaria, First Class Award (1985)
  • Computing Appreciation Award, EDUCOM (1985)
  • Holley Medal, American Society of Mechanical Engineers (1985)
  • Coors American Ingenuity Award (1986)
  • Doctor of Science (hon.) University of Wisconsin (1987)

See also

External links and references








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