The exceptional genius of Bulgarian-born inventor JOHN ATANASOFF
Finally, the truth comes out and does justice to John Atanasoff because, on October 19, 1973, U.S. Federal Judge Earl R. Larson signed his decision in the U.S. District Court. Larson signed his decision after a lengthy trial, declaring Mauchly and Eckert’s ENIAC patent invalid and naming Atanasoff as the inventor of the electronic digital computer – the Atanasoff-Berry computer or ABC.
John Atanasoff was born on October 4, 1903, a few miles west of Hamilton, New York. His father was a Bulgarian immigrant named Ivan Atanasov. His last name was changed to Atanasoff by immigration officials at Ellis Island when he arrived with an uncle in 1889; his first name was changed to John.
Iva Lucena Purdy, a mathematics teacher, was his mother. After John Vincent was born, his father worked as an electrical engineer in Osteen, Florida, then in Brewster, Florida. It was here that JV finished primary school and began understanding electricity concepts. The Atanasoffs’ home in Brewster was the first house they lived in with electricity, and JV, when he was only nine years old, discovered and corrected the faulty electrical wiring of a lamp on the back porch.
When John Vincent entered high school, the family moved to a farm in Old Chicora, Florida. He attended Mulberry High School for two years, excelling in science and maths. By this time, he had decided that he wanted to be a theoretical physicist. In 1921, he entered the University of Florida in Gainesville. Since the university did not offer a degree in theoretical physics, he began taking courses in electrical engineering. While taking these courses, he became interested in electronics and continued his studies in higher mathematics. He graduated from the University of Florida in 1925 with a degree in electrical engineering. He had an academic “A” average. Although he received many offers of teaching fellowships, including one from Harvard, he accepted the one from Iowa State College because it was the first one he received and because of the institution’s good reputation in engineering and science.
So one day in the summer of 1925, the 22-year-old boarded a train to Ames, Iowa, the home of Iowa State College. He was ready to make his mark in the world of science. From September to November, he worked on his master’s degree and taught two undergraduate maths courses. Although his social life was minimal due to his busy schedule, he was aware of a campus organization called the Dixie Club, a club for travelling southern students. One night, he dropped by the club to see what was happening. He met Lura Meeks, a beautiful 25-year-old home economics student with brown hair and blue eyes from Oklahoma. That chance meeting led to another date, and then another. Soon they became best friends, seeking each other’s company.
In June 1926, John graduated from Iowa State College with a master’s degree in mathematics, and a few days later, he married Lura. Iowa State had hired him to teach mathematics; Lura had not yet completed the work for her home economics degree, and she had signed a contract to teach during the 1926-1927 school year in Montana to save enough money to complete the year required for the degree. She broke her teaching contract in the middle of the school year and returned to Ames to be with her husband. Their eldest daughter, Elsie, was born a little over a year later. When Elsie was a year old, the family moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where John had been accepted as a doctoral candidate. Two more children, Joanne and John, were later born to the couple. Working on his doctoral dissertation, “The Dielectric Constant of Helium,” gave Atanasoff his painful first computer experience. He spent hours on a Monroe calculator, one of the most advanced calculating machines of the time. During the weeks of complex calculations to complete his thesis, Atanasoff became interested in developing a better and faster calculating machine. After earning his doctorate in theoretical physics in July 1930, he returned to Iowa State College determined to try to create a better and quicker calculating machine.
In the fall of 1930, he joined the Iowa State College faculty as an assistant professor of mathematics and physics. With his academic background, Atanasoff felt well equipped to try to find a way to solve the complicated mathematical problems he had encountered during his doctoral dissertation in a faster and more efficient way. While doing experiments on vacuum tubes and radio and studying the field of electronics, he was promoted to Associate Professor of Mathematics and Physics and moved from Beardshear Hall to the Physics Building.
The obsession with finding a solution to the computer problem had become frantic during the winter months of 1937. One night, frustrated after many discouraging events, he got into his car and started driving without a destination. Two hundred miles later, he stopped at a truck stop in Illinois. There he drank a glass of bourbon and continued to think about the creation of the machine. He was no longer nervous and tense; he realized that his thoughts were coming together clearly. He started generating ideas on how to build this computer! After receiving a $650 grant from Iowa State College in March 1939, Atanasoff was ready to embark on this exciting adventure. To help him achieve his goal, he hired an exceptionally bright electrical engineering student, Clifford E. Berry. From 1939 to 1941, they worked on developing and improving the ABC, the Atanasoff-Berry computer, as it would later be called. When World War II broke out on December 7, 1941, work on the computer stopped. Although Iowa State College hired a Chicago patent attorney, Richard R. Trexler, the patenting of the ABC was never completed.
In September 1939, Atanasoff left Ames, Iowa and Iowa State for a defence-related position at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in Washington, D.C. (Clifford Berry had accepted a defence-related position in California).
He thought he would spend a few months, or at least a few years, in government and then return to Iowa State College to become department head hopefully. Lura and their three children remained in Ames, but he frequently travelled home to see his family.
He had become head of the acoustics division at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory, a position that paid well above the $10,000 ceiling for government salaries at the time. He was charged with developing a computer for the US Navy. At the same time, he was involved in the first atomic test in the Pacific, a project he enjoyed very much.
In 1948, on his return visit to Ames, he was surprised and disappointed to learn that the Atanasoff-Berry computer had been removed from the physics building and dismantled. Neither he nor Clifford Berry had been told that the computer was to be destroyed. Only a few parts of the computer were saved.
The long separation from his family was beginning to take its toll. He and Lura had drifted apart. In 1949 they divorced, and Lura moved with the children to Denver, Colorado. That same year, John Atanasoff married Alice Crosby, an Iowan who had also gone to work in Washington during the war.
In 1949, he became chief scientist for the armed forces at Fort Monroe, Virginia. A year later, he returned to Washington as director of the Navy’s rocket programme at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory. He held this position until the end of 1951. In 1952, he formed The Ordnance Engineering Corporation, a research and engineering company in Rockville, Maryland, with his old friend and student, David Beecher. The company was sold to Aerojet General Corporation in 1957, and he became director of its Atlantic Division from 1957 to 1959 and vice-president from 1959 to 1961. He retired in 1961. In 1974, JV returned to Iowa State University (whose name had been changed to “university” in 1959) to be the guest of honour and grand marshal of the largest student-run party in the country: Veisha. The acronym stands for the first letters of the university’s studies: Veterinary Medicine, Engineering, Industrial Sciences, Home Economics and Agriculture. The festival usually attracts over 250,000 people. He attended with his wife Alice and two children: Joanne and John, and their respective families. Elsie, who was in Indonesia with her husband, could not participate in.
UIS Vice President and Director of Information and Public Affairs Carl Hamilton, initiated the creation of a film about the construction of the Atanasoff-Berry computer. The movie “From One John Vincent Atanasoff” was completed in 1981. The film was released on October 21, 1983 (the tenth anniversary of Judge Larson’s landmark decision that Iowa State was the site of the first electronic digital computer and that ENIAC was “derived” from ABC). During the celebration held on the ISU campus, JV received a citation for outstanding achievement from the Iowa State University Alumni Association. Cliff Berry’s widow, Jean Berry, and his mother, Mrs. Grace Berry, were recognized as relatives of the co-inventor of the ABC.