The Inventor of the Digital Computer: John Vincent Atanasoff – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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John Vincent Atanasoff

John Vincent Atanasoff

Atanasoff, in the 1990s.

BornOctober 4, 1903
HamiltonNew York, U.S.DiedJune 15, 1995 (aged 91)
Frederick, Maryland, U.S.CitizenshipAmericanFieldsPhysicsDoctoral advisorJ. H. V. VleckKnown forAtanasoff–Berry ComputerNotable awardsOrder of Saints Cyril and Methodius, First Class

John Vincent Atanasoff (October 4, 1903 – June 15, 1995) was an American physicist and inventor, best known for 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.[1][2][3][4] His special-purpose machine has come to be called theAtanasoff–Berry Computer.

Early life and education

Atanasoff, of Bulgarian, French and Irish ancestry, was born on October 4, 1903 inHamilton, New York to an electrical engineer and a school teacher. Atanasoff’s father, Ivan Atanasoff was born in 1876 in the village ofBoyadzhik, close to YambolBulgaria. While Ivan was still an infant, Ivan’s own father was killed by Ottoman soldiers after the BulgarianApril Uprising.[5] In 1889, Ivan Atanasov immigrated to the United States with his uncle. Atanasoff’s mother, Iva Lucena Purdy, was a teacher of mathematics.

Atanasoff was raised by his parents inBrewster, 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 inelectrical 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 degreein mathematics. He completed his formal education in 1930 by earning a Ph.D. intheoretical 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.

Computer development

1997 replica of the Atanasoff–Berry Computer at Durham Center, Iowa State University

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 ofslaved Monroe calculators and IBMtabulators 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.

According to Atanasoff, several operative principles of the Atanasoff–Berry Computer(ABC) were conceived by the professor in a flash of insight during the winter of 1937–1938 after a drive to Rock Island, Illinois. With a grant of $650 received in September 1939 (the equivalent of $8403 in 2010) 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 includedbinary 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 usingvacuum tubes for digital computation. It also used separate regenerative capacitormemory that operated by a process still used today in DRAM memory.

See also: History of computing hardware

Patent dispute

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, 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, Marylandfor 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 ofHoneywell 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 fathers 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. A prize named John Atanasov is given every year in Bulgaria. An asteroid found at the Bulgarian astronomic observatory of Rozen, was named John Atanasov.[citation needed]

Honors and distinctions

Monument to John Atanasoff in SofiaBulgaria

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.[8]

In 1990, President George H. W. Bushawarded Atanasoff the United States National Medal of Technology, the highest U.S. honor conferred for achievements related to technological progress.[9]

Other distinctions awarded to Atanasoff include:

U.S. Navy Distinguished Service Award(1945)Citation, Seismological Society of America (1947)Citation, Admiral, Bureau of Ordnance (1947)Cosmos Club membership (1947)Doctor of Science (Honoris Causa)University of Florida (1974)Honorary membership, Society for Computer Medicine (1974)Iowa Inventors Hall of Fame (1978)Computer Pioneer Medal from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) (1981)Iowa Governor’s Science Medal (1985)Order of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, First Class (1985)[8]Computing Appreciation Award, EDUCOM (1985)Foreign Member of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (1985)[10]Holley Medal, American Society of Mechanical Engineers (1985)Honorary citizen of the city of Yambol, Bulgaria (1985; Atanasoff’s father was born in Yambol region)[10]Coors American Ingenuity Award (1986)Doctor of Science (Honoris Causa)University of Wisconsin–Madison (1987)

Named after Atanasoff

Atanasoff Nunatak (a peak) on Livingston Island in the South Shetland Islands, Antarctica[11]The asteroid (3546) Atanasoff, discovered by the Rozhen Observatory[12][13][14]Atanasoff Hall, a computer science building on the Iowa State campusIowa State’s implementation of MIT‘sProject Athena (“Project Vincent”, after Atanasoff’s middle name)The John Atanasoff Award, established byGeorgi Parvanov in 2003 and bestowed annually by the President of Bulgaria to a young Bulgarian for achievements in the field of computer and information technologiesand the information society of Bulgaria[15][16]The John Atanasoff Technical College in the Bulgarian city of Plovdiv, a branch of theTechnical University of Sofia[17]The John Atanasoff Bulgarian national tournament in informatics and information technologies, held in the city of Shumenannually since 2001[18]The John Atanasoff Professional High School of Electronics in the city of Stara Zagora, Bulgaria[19]The John Atanasoff Professional High School of Electronics in Sofia[20]The John Atanasoff Chitalishte (community cultural centre), Sofia[21]The John Atanasoff Chitalishte, BoyadzhikVillage, Bulgaria (the birthplace of Atanasoff’s father)[22]Prof. John Atanasoff 4th Primary School, Sofia[23]The John Atanasoff Private High School,Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria[24]The John Atanasoff Professional Technical High School, Kyustendil, Bulgaria[25]The John Atanasoff Bulgarian Language School, Chicago, Illinois, [26]The John Atanasoff Professional High School of Economic Informatics, Targovishte, Bulgaria[27]The John Atanasoff University Student Computer Club, Plovdiv University, Bulgaria[28]John Atanasoff Street, Yambol, Bulgaria[29]John Atanasoff Street, Sofia[30]

Selected bibliography

See also



Further reading

External links

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