John Atanasoff

Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.
Winnie the Pooh

John Atanasoff (1903-1995)
John Atanasoff (1903-1995)

Working on his doctoral thesis in theoretical physics at the University of Wisconsin in 1929, the young scientist John Vincent Atanasoff (1903-1995) first time met a severe computational problem, being forced to perform complex calculations, using traditional computing tools like the slide rule and mechanical calculator Monroe type.

After returning to Iowa State College in 1930 as an assistant professor in mathematics and physics, he started doing experiments with vacuum tubes and radio, and examining the field of electronics. After examining many mathematical devices available at the time, Atanasoff concluded that they fell into two classes—analog and digital. Since the term “digital” was not used until much later, Atanasoff contrasted the analog devices to what he called “computing machines proper.” Sometimes in 1935, he has begun to think seriously about methods of mechanizing digital calculation. In 1936 Atanasoff constructed (along with his colleague physicist Glen Murphy), a small analog calculator, called Laplaciometer. It was used for analyzing the geometry of surfaces. Atanasoff regarded this machine as having the same flaws as other analog devices, where accuracy was dependent upon the performance of other machine parts.

Atanasoff spent a large portion of his time during the 1935-37 period modifying an IBM tabulating machine to solve sets of linear equations by the elimination procedure. He wrote a paper, Solution of Systems of Linear Equations by the Use of Punched Card Equipment, and a drawing for it, schematic Sketch of Auxiliary Apparatus, and in April 1937, he wrote a letter to IBM concerning this idea (later on, during the trial, an internal letter of IBM was revealed, saying in effect “…keep Atanasoff out of the tabulator.” In the 1930s IBM was not in the computer business, but in the office machines business.). Atanasoff had success in modifying an IBM tabulator for the analysis of spectra, that’s why he tried to use it for sets of equations. Ultimately he abandoned the scheme as impractical, primarily because of the machine’s limited storage capacity.

The obsession with finding a solution to the computer problem had built into a frenzy in the winter months of 1937. One cold night, frustrated after many discouraging events, Atanasoff got into his car and started driving to the east. Later on, he will tell in an interview: “It was at an evening of scotch and 100 mph car rides, when the concept came, for an electronically operated machine, that would use base-two (binary) numbers instead of the traditional base-10 numbers, condensers for memory, and a regenerative process to preclude loss of memory from electrical failure.” After driving two hundred miles, he pulled onto a roadhouse in the state of Illinois. Here, he had a drink of bourbon and soda and (he was very fond of fast cars and scotch, and at this time Iowa was still a dry state, so let’s drive to Wisconsin) continued thinking about the creation of the machine. No longer nervous and tense, Atanasoff realized that these thoughts were coming together clearly. He began generating ideas on how to build this computer, using the back of a cocktail napkin. He envisioned a machine that:
• Use base-two numbers (the binary system)—all other known systems at the time used base-ten
• Use electricity and electronics as its principal media
• Use condensers for memory and use a regenerative process to avoid lapses that could occur from leakage of power
• Compute by direct logical action rather than by the enumeration methods used in analog calculators

By early 1938, Atanasoff had conceived the general electronic and logical design of an automatic digital computer for solving large sets of simultaneous linear equations and started to ask for financing. In March 1939 he applied and 2 months later received a grant of $650 ($200 for materials; $450 for Clifford Berry) from Iowa State College for the construction of the machine. Asking for an assistant, Atanasoff received a recommendation from his colleague and friend Harold Anderson (professor of electrical engineering) for a particularly bright electrical engineering student, Clifford E. Berry and after a short meeting, he decided to hire him sometime in the spring of 1939. The construction of the prototype moved ahead with great speed and as soon as it was completed it worked well.

Physics Building of Iowa State University
Physics Building of Iowa State University

In late 1939 Atanasoff filled out an application for funding to Iowa State College, and in December 1939 made a demonstration of the prototype to Iowa State College officials, which convinced them that Atanasoff’s project was worthy of a grant of $5000 from the Iowa State College Research Council to construct a full-scale machine capable of solving systems of equations. Work on that machine started at the beginning of 1940. By late spring 1940, the machine was well on its way to completion, and they submitted a manuscript describing the details of the computer, both for obtaining a patent (which would never be filed by Iowa State College) and to apply for additional funding for refinement and perfection of the construction and operation features. The machine was manufactured in the basement of the Physics Building of Iowa State University (see the nearby photo) and was ready by the end of 1941. As the building of the machine continued, Clifford Berry wrote a manual for the ABC.

ABC in May, 1942 (Courtesy of Iowa State University)
ABC in May 1942 (Courtesy of Iowa State University)
Berry and ABC in 1942 (Courtesy of Iowa State University)
Berry and ABC in 1942 (Courtesy of Iowa State University)

At the end of 1948, on one of his return visits to Ames, Atanasoff was surprised and disappointed to learn that his computer had been removed from the Physics Building and dismantled. Neither he nor Clifford Berry had been notified that the computer was going to be destroyed. Only a few parts of the computer were saved (one of the two memory drums, shown in a lower photo).

By late spring of 1940, the project was well underway, and consideration was given to the fact that steps needed to be taken to patent the machine, as well as to request additional funding for its completion. A 35-page manuscript Computing Machines for the Solution of Large Systems of Linear Algebraic Equations, complete with drawings of the machine, was written by Atanasoff, with Berry’s assistance. One copy of this manuscript was sent in late 1940 to Chicago patent lawyer, Richard R. Trexler, who had been hired by Iowa State College to give them advice on how to protect the inventions that were incorporated into the computer. When in 1941 the work on the computer came to a halt and Atanasoff left Ames, to receive a defense-related position at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in Washington, D.C., he left the task of completing the patenting of the ABC to university officials. This will prove to be one of the biggest mistakes in his life, as we will see later on.

News account of ABC, dated 7 April 1942
A news account of ABC, dated 7 April 1942

Atanasoff never did earn any money from his invention. He said “I wasn’t possessed with the idea I had invented the first computing machine. If I had known the things I had in my machine, I would have kept going on it.” After his retirement in 1961, he used to work on private projects, when in the spring of 1967 he was contacted, to his surprise, by the attorneys of three huge computer companies—Control Data Company (CDC), Honeywell, and General Electric, regarding controversy with the Sperry Rand Corporation over what was called generally “the ENIAC PATENTS”. The inventors of the computer ENIAC—John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert applied for the patent of their machine in 1947, the patent was granted in 1964. Meanwhile, Sperry Rand had purchased the company of Mauchly and Eckert and together with the company—the patent rights, so not only Honeywell but all the companies, manufacturing electronic computers, were supposed to pay patent fees. The lawyers of Honeywell and Control Data somehow managed to learn about the computer of Atanasoff. Until this moment the computer of Atanasoff has been mentioned only in 3 short newspaper messages from the 1940s (see the nearby photo) and in the book Electronic Digital Systems by R. K. Richards, published in 1966. Richards was an Ames friend of Berry, who had seen the Atanasoff machine in 1941, so his book was probably the source of information for the attorneys.

Atanasoff was hired as a consultant by CDC and Honeywell, provided all available information, and agreed to be a witness at the court trial, which started in 1971. In this trial, CDC and Honeywell, with the determinant help of Atanasoff managed to prove, that Mauchly and Eckert have used ideas from the ABC, the patent pretensions of Sperry Rand have been rejected, and the patent of Mauchly and Eckert was classified as invalid. During this long trial (it lasted 135 working days, and filled more than 20000 pages of a transcript with the testimony of 77 witnesses), Atanasoff made a very good impression with his manners and testimony, in contrast with Mauchly’s shameful display, who changed his testimony under oath three times, and spoke slightingly for Atanasoff and his computer. It was proved, that during their first meeting in December 1940, Atanasoff described his work to Mauchly, and as Mauchly wanted to see the ABC for himself, Atanasoff agreed and invited him to visit him in Iowa (see the nearby photo for a letter from John Atanasoff to Mauchly, dated 7 March 1941). Bit by bit Mauchly was persuaded by the attorneys to confirm the following points:
1. He spent from 13 June 1941 to the morning of 18 June 1941 as a guest in Atanasoff’s home in Ames.
2. During this period as Atanasoff’s guest he spent uncounted hours in discussions of the Atanasoff Berry Computer and computer theory with John Atanasoff and Clifford Berry.
3. On three or four days he accompanied Atanasoff to his office in the Physics Building and observed the Atanasoff Berry Computer in the company of Atanasoff and Clifford Berry.
3. He had seen demonstrations of the operations or some phases of the functions of the ABC and might have engaged in the manipulation of some parts of the machine with Clifford Berry.
4. He was permitted to read Atanasoff’s 35-page manuscript on the construction and operation of the ABC from cover to cover and probably did read it. Atanasoff and Berry had willingly answered questions and entered into discussions with him about the machine and the booklet, but Atanasoff had refused to let him take a copy to Pennsylvania.
5. Immediately after his visit to Iowa State in June, Mauchly had written letters to Atanasoff and to his meteorologist friend, Helms Clayton, expressing enthusiasm about the Atanasoff Berry Computer and had taken a crash course in electronics at the University of Pennsylvania.
6. On 15 August 1941 he wrote a comprehensive memorandum on the difference between analog calculators and pulse devices that incorporated some ideas that were almost identical to those in Atanasoff’s 35-page manuscript on the ABC.
7. On 30 September 1941 he had written to Atanasoff suggesting a cooperative effort to develop an Atanasoff computer and had asked if Atanasoff had any objection to him using some of the Atanasoff concepts in a computer machine, that he was considering building.

When Judge Larson distributed the formal opinion on 19 October 1973, it was everything that the attorneys of CDC and Honeywell and Atanasoff himself had hoped it would be. It was a clear and unequivocal finding that Mauchly’s basic ENIAC ideas were “derived from Atanasoff, and the invention claimed in ENIAC was derived from Atanasoff.” In extensive findings, Judge Larson declared: “Eckert and Mauchly did not themselves first invent the automatic electronic digital computer, but instead derived that subject matter from one Dr. John Vincent Atanasoff.”

Judge Larson had ruled that John Vincent Atanasoff and Clifford Berry had constructed the first electronic digital computer at Iowa State College in the 1939-1942 period. He had also ruled that John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert, who had for more than twenty-five years been feted, trumpeted, and honored as the co-inventors of the first electronic digital computer, were not entitled to the patent upon which that honor was based. Furthermore, Judge Larson had ruled that Mauchly had pirated Atanasoff’s ideas, and for more than thirty years had palmed those ideas off on the world as the product of his own genius.

A scheme of ABC
A scheme of ABC

Let’s examine the purpose and construction of the ABC (the name ABC-Atanasoff-Berry Computer is not the original name of the machine, Atanasoff adopted this name in recognition of Berry’s contribution to it during the litigations at the end of the 1960s).

ABC was about the size of a desk and weighed about 315 kg (see the nearby scheme). It contained 280 vacuum tubes and 31 thyratrons.

ABC was a specialized computing machine for the solution of large systems of linear algebraic equations (up to twenty-nine equations in twenty-nine unknowns, with each of the thirty coefficients (including constant term) of each equation having about fifteen decimal places), using the standard Gaussian elimination algorithm. Atanasoff’s idea was the following: he would solve a large set of equations by eliminating a designated variable from successive (overlapping) pairs, thereby generating a new set in one fewer variables, then repeating the process for the new set, and so on, until finally a single equation in a single variable emerged. He could then find single equations in all the other variables, as well, and so calculate the value of every variable.

The only surviving part of the ABC—one of the two drums
The only surviving part of the ABC—one of the two drums

The structure and principles of operation of ABC are very simple. The machine consists of three basic parts: a storage device, an arithmetic unit, and an input/output unit.

For the storage device Atanasoff considered many possibilities, conducting numerous tests and experiments, in the end, he chose to use for the memory a rotating electrostatic store—drum, based on capacitors. So-called keyboard and counter drums (the nearby photo is of the only surviving part of the ABC—one of the two drums), are mounted on a common axle and were each eleven inches long and eight inches in diameter (the drums contained 1600 capacitors each). Each drum holds 30 numbers of 50 bits each of them. (Two of the columns are spares). Drums are operated in parallel. It is the first use of the idea we now call DRAM—the use of capacitors to store 0s and 1s, refreshing their state periodically.

The add-subtract mechanism of ABC
The add-subtract mechanism of ABC

The source digits from the punch card reader are stored on Drum #1. The contents of Drum #1 could be transferred to Drum #2. When all operands are stored on Drum #1 and Drum #2 the ABC was ready for computations. Each computation (addition or subtraction) was completed on digits from Drum #1 and Drum #2 and the result was stored on Drum #1. When the computations were finished the contents of Drum #1 were punched on cards. He would have a memory separate from the arithmetic unit, in the form of two drums turning on a common axle, each drum large enough to store the coefficients of one equation in capacitor elements. The coefficients of any given pair to be processed would be fed simultaneously into the electronic arithmetic unit and operated on to eliminate a designated coefficient from one of them. The new equation thus formed would be recorded on a card as one of the next smaller sets, to be reentered in the next round of eliminations.

Atanasoff’s arithmetic unit is based on vacuum tubes and consists of thirty computing mechanisms together with several control mechanisms. Each of the computing mechanisms, which Atanasoff had expected to be electronic counters with some kind of carrying arrangement. That is, the thirty computing mechanisms consisted of thirty electronic add-subtract mechanisms (each contains 7 dual triodes) (see the nearby photo), thirty other primarily electronic mechanisms, and the thirty electrostatic bands of a carry-borrow drum.

A replica of ABC, built in the Iowa State University
A replica of ABC, built in the Iowa State University

The input device used an existing punch card reader of IBM Corp (there are two readers: decimal and binary). For the output device, however, Atanasoff devised a high-voltage thyratron-based puncher, which seems to be a failure. During the experiments with the machine in the summer of 1942, the only serious flaw appeared namely in the output puncher. The writing mechanism consisted of two sets of thirty tungsten electrodes, positioned one directly above the other in straight lines. The card was passed between the two sets and a sparking circuit applied 5000 volts across the associated pair of electrodes, to produce an arc and leave a small round charred spot on the card at that position. This mechanism was not reliable and for solving the system of equations over 3 appeared mistakes. It was only a matter of time to improve the scheme of the punching mechanism or choose a better material for punching cards, or even invent a new, not-so-primitive way of entering the intermediate data in the machine, but Atanasoff and Berry didn’t have time, as they hade to leave to the army.

In 1996 a replica of ABC was built at Iowa State University (see the nearby photo) and was demonstrated in several towns in the USA.

Biography of John Atanasoff

John Atanasoff in 1938
John Atanasoff in 1938

John Vincent Atanasoff was born in the farm of his grandfather, located a few miles west of Hamilton, New York, on 4 October 1903. John was the first child in the family of Ivan (John) Atanasoff (1876-1956), an electrical engineer, and Iva Lucena Purdy (1881-1983), a mathematics schoolteacher. The couple had nine children (one of whom died in infancy): John (1904-1995), Ethelyn (1906–2005), Margaret (1912–2009), Theodore Brooks (1916–2002), Avis, Raymond (1923–2004), Melva Ann (1926–2021), and Irving.

Atanasoff’s mother Iva Lucena Purdy (see the lower photo from 1906 of John and Iva) is from an old American family of Ireland origin, a daughter of Monmouth Floyd Purdy (1842-1921) and Mary Celestia Tackleberry (1842-1907). Atanasoff’s father Ivan Atanasoff was an immigrant from Bulgaria (the son of Atanas Ivanoff and Yana Zhelyazkova from Boyadjik, Yambol Region in Bulgaria) and a rather interesting and important figure in the life of John Atanasoff. Let’s see what wrote John about his parents:
My father was born on January 6, 1876, at the time of the preparation of our people for an uprising against the Turks. Before the outbreak of the uprising, the Turkish governors forced the people of the village of Boyadjik to leave their houses and then they burnt them. As my grandfather ran with his son in his hands, followed by my grandmother, a group of Turkish soldiers shot him in the chest. The bullet, which killed him, left a scar on the forehead of my father for the rest of his life.
My grandmother married twice more after that. My father was 13 years old when he arrived in the United States and at 15 he became an orphan. After this incredible start in his life, he finished Colgate University and married my mother, an American whose grandfather fought in the Civil War between the North and the South.

The story of the miraculous survival of Ivan Atanasoff is a documented fact in Bulgarian history (so-called The Massacre of Boyadjik). On 17 May 1876, the Turkish army attacked and plundered the Bulgarian village of Boyadjik, killing almost 200 non-armed people, mainly women, and children. This (as well as many others) brutality of Turks changed Europe’s main countries’ public opinion, which allowed Russia to declare war on Turkey and to liberate Bulgaria in 1877-1878.

Ivan Atanasoff arrived in the US with his uncle in 1889 (Ivan’s name was changed to John Atanasoff by immigration officials at Ellis Island). Ivan’s uncle however left the US the next year, and 14 y.o. Ivan was found to be alone, without money, and without knowing well the language. The next years were very difficult for the boy, but he worked hard and even managed to graduate the Colgate College in New York.

John with his mother Iva Lucena Purdy in 1906
John with his mother Iva Lucena Purdy in 1906

Iva and John married in 1900, following John’s graduation from Colgate College with a degree in philosophy. He got a job as an industrial engineer in New Jersey and they started their family. John took electrical engineering correspondence courses at night and on weekends to further his education. In 1903, the family with just born John Vincent moved to Florida, where John accepted an electrical engineering position in Osteen, Florida, and subsequently, in a newly established town called Brewster, now an empty ghost town, but back then, the home of the phosphate mines of chemical conglomerate American Cyanamid. It was here that John completed grade school and started understanding the concepts of electricity. The Atanasoff’s home in Brewster was the first house they lived in with electricity, and John, as a 9-year-old boy found and corrected faulty electric wiring in a back-porch light.

John’s grade school years were very normal. He was a good student and had a youthful interest in sports, especially baseball. This interest in baseball faded when his father purchased a new Dietzgen slide rule (see the lower photo) to help him at his job. The 10-year-old boy became totally fascinated with it. He carefully read the instructions and was amazed that he could get the correct answers. His father soon discovered that he didn’t have an immediate need for the slide rule, and it was soon forgotten by everyone except young John.

A Dietzgen slide rule
A Dietzgen slide rule

John soon became interested in the mathematical principles behind the operation of the slide rule and the study of logarithms; this led to studies in trigonometric functions. With the help of his mother, he read A College Algebra, by J.M. Taylor. This book included a beginning study on differential calculus and also had a chapter on infinite series and how to calculate logarithms. Within a few months, the precocious 9-year-old had progressed beyond the point of needing help. During this time, he learned about number bases other than ten from his mother; this led him to study a wide range of bases, including base-two.

When John was to enter high school, the family moved to a farm in Old Chicora, Florida. He completed the Mulberry High School course in two years, excelling in science and mathematics, and graduating with his high school diploma at age 15. He had, by then, decided he wanted to be a theoretic physicist. After working a year as a seeker of phosphate deposits to save some money, in 1921 John entered the University of Florida in Gainesville. Since the university did not offer a degree in theoretical physics, he started taking electrical engineering courses. While taking these courses, he became interested in electronics and continued on to higher mathematics. He graduated from the University of Florida in 1925 with a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering. He had a straight “A” academic average. Even though he had 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 fine reputation in engineering and sciences.

In the summer of 1925, John left for Ames, Iowa, home of Iowa State College, where he started work on his master’s degree and taught two undergraduate mathematics classes. In June 1926, John received his master’s degree in mathematics and married Lura Ella Meeks (1900-1981), a beautiful, brown-haired, blue-eyed 25-year-old home economics major from Oklahoma. Next year was born his oldest daughter Elsie, and the family moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where John had been accepted as a doctoral candidate. Two other children, the twins Joanne and John, were born a year later.

In March of 1929, he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin as a doctoral student in theoretical physics. The work on his doctoral thesis, “The Dielectric Constant of Helium,” gave Atanasoff his first experience in serious computing. He spent hours on a Monroe calculator, one of the most advanced calculating machines of the time. During the hard weeks of calculations to complete his thesis Atanasoff acquired an interest in developing a better and faster computing machine. After receiving his Ph.D. in theoretical physics in July 1930, he returned to Iowa State College with a determination to try to create a faster, better computing machine.

In the fall of 1930, Atanasoff became a member of the Iowa State College faculty as an assistant professor in mathematics and physics. He started doing experiments with vacuum tubes and radio and examining the field of electronics. After examining many mathematical devices available at the time, Atanasoff concluded that they fell into two classes—analog and digital. Since the term digital was not used until much later, Atanasoff contrasted analog devices to what he called computing machines proper. In 1936 he engaged in his last effort to construct a small analog calculator. With Glen Murphy, then an atomic physicist at Iowa State College, he built the Laplaciometer. It was used for analyzing the geometry of surfaces. Atanasoff regarded this machine as having the same flaws as other analog devices, where accuracy was dependent upon the performance of other parts of the machine (see the nearby photo from 1938).

In September of 1942, Atanasoff left Ames, Iowa, and Iowa State on leave for a defense-related position at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in Washington, D.C. He had become Chief of the Acoustics Division at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory, a position that was paying him a salary well above the $10,000 cap on government salaries at the time. He was in charge of developing a computer for the United States Navy. At the same time, he became involved in the first atomic test in the Pacific, a project that he liked very much.

In 1949 John and Lura were divorced and Lura moved with the children to Denver, Colorado. In the same year, John married Alice Gertrude Crosby (1921-2013), an Iowan who had also gone to Washington to work at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory during the war years.

John Atanasoff
John Vincent Atanasoff (1903-1995)

In 1949 John became chief scientist for the Army Field Forces in Fort Monroe, Virginia. After one year, he returned to Washington as director of the Navy Fuse Program at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory. He stayed in that position until late 1951. In 1952 he established 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 Atanasoff became Manager of its Atlantic Division from 1957-1959 and Vice President from 1959-1961. In 1961 he retired.

After retirement Atanasoff worked in the area of computer education for young people and developed a phonetic alphabet for use with computers. John Atanasoff was a holder of many Honors and Awards, such as the U.S. Navy Distinguished Civilian Service Award (the U.S. Navy’s highest honor awarded to civilians), five honorary doctorate degrees, membership in the Iowa Inventors Hall of Fame, and the U.S. National Medal of Technology presented by President George Bush in 1990. Atanasoff is a holder of about 30 patents.

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.”

The Atanasoffs had a farm in Monrovia, Maryland, and enjoyed together growing vegetables, and flowers and raising cattle. Dr. John Vincent Atanasoff died on 15 June 1995 of a stroke at his home in Monrovia and was buried at the local Pine Grove Cemetery.