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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Forget Bix Beiderbecke - The Electronic Computer Was Invented in the Quad-Cities - At a Rock Island Roadhouse

The Atanasoff-Berry Computer, known as the ABC, was invented in 1937 and ignored by Iowa State, Ames.
Few people realize John Vincent Atanasoff invented the electronic computer, because his plans were copied by another scientist and marketed eventually as the Eniac.


John V. Atanasoff was a remarkable scientist who did valuable work for the US during WWII.

As an applied physics professor at Ames, Iowa, he was looking for ways of doing math calculations, the most laborious part of his work. He kept thinking about it and trying various methods for years. Meanwhile, others were working on a calculating device.

One December day in 1937 he took off in his car and drove to relax and think about the solution. He crossed the Mississippi:

"I had reached the Mississippi River and was crossing into Illinois at a place where there are three cities...one of which is Rock Island. I drove into Illinois and turned off the highway into a little road, and went into a roadhouse, which had bright lights...I sat down and ordered a drink...As the delivery of the drink was made, I realized that I was no longer so nervous and my thoughts turned again to computing machines." Jane Smiley, The Man Who Invented the Computer, The Biography of John Atanasoff, Digital Pioneer, p. 2.

During this stop in Rock Island he thought of four basic concepts to make a computer work. He wrote down his ideas on a napkin, went back to Ames, and asked for funding for this project. He received $200 for parts and $450 to pay his assistant, an exceptionally able Clifford Berry.

The computer worked, so when John Mauchley found out about it, he visited Ames, stayed at the Atanasoff home, took copious notes, asked all about the machine, and stole the idea. Sperry Rand owned the patent rights, because Ames did not pursue the patent case as it should have. Also, Atanasoff seemed especially naive about Mauchley's early intentions. One reason was - everyone but Mauchley ignored him.

The apparent murder of Berry, never solved, made Atanaoff much more involved in the difficult case of overturning the patents owned by Sperry Rand. In 1973, the judge in the federal case gave the credit to Atanasoff and took away Sperry Rand's claims.

Others made significant contributions to the invention of the computer. One method was used to help crack Enigma during WWII, in England. Konrad Zuse, a German scientist, did astonishing work, but he was ignored by the Nazi military.

The first computers were destroyed. The original ABC was taken apart because it was using up valuable space at Ames. The future head of computer science at Ames took it apart. The ABC was later rebuilt for a small fortune!

The English computer was destroyed to hide the evidence about how they read the German Enigma messages in WWII.

Konrad Zuse had his early computers bombed by the Allies in WWII.

Atanasoff will never get a Nobel Prize, because he did not submit a paper for publication, a requirement of the committee. He died in 1995.






John Vincent Atanasoff

Let's quote the Iowa State University Associate Professor of Physics John Hauptman opinion about Atanasoff:
"I came here from Berkeley," Hauptman said. "You know Berkeley must have 20 Nobel prizes and they are proud of them; poets, physicists, chemists... When I found out Atanasoff's story and read his paper... It occurred to me that if Atanasoff had been at Berkeley in 1939 (with the Atanasoff-Berry Computer) he would have gotten a Nobel prize right away. Berkeley would not have waited a minute before going after a Nobel Prize and becoming known as the birthplace of the electronic digital computer. Here at Iowa State, it was just dropped."