John V. Atanasoff

The Man Who Invented the Computer.

JVA's Biography

John Vincent Atanasoff was born on 4 Oct 1903 near Hamilton, New York. His father Ivan Atanasoff was a Bulgarian emigrant and was born in the village of Boyadzhik, Yambol, in 1876. His parents die in the climax of the April revolution in Bulgaria. In 1889 Ivan Atanasoff, 13-year-old boy by then, emigrates to America with his uncle.

John Atanasoff was a bright student at school with interest in array of sports, but his favorite was volleyball. Yet, his interest in the game quickly faded away when his father bought a new slide rule which he needed for the calculations at work. John is totally engulfed by the ruler. The most impressive thing to John was the fact that he was able to correct his answers. Soon John became the last person in his family to use the ruler.

Atanasoff was fascinated by the mathematical principles and operations which stood behind the login in his slide rule. This and his interest for the logarithms drove his love for Trigonometry. With the help of his mother he read books on Algebra and learned about Continuous and Discrete Calculus. About the same time, he found out that there were a number of numerical systems. He fell in love with the binary.

He took all of his high school courses for two years and graduated with distinctions for his accomplishment in the area of Mathematics and Science. After that he chose to expand his knowledge in the area of Theoretical Physics. In 1921 he joined the University of Florida. There were no courses in Theoretical Physics and he decided to take electric engineering as a major. During his stay in the university he becomes fascinated with electronics and continues developing his knowledge in the area of Mathematics. After obtaining his diploma John was offered a number of amazing jobs in great institutions such as Harvard College. Yet, he wanted to work in the area of Science and chose to work in the Iowa University, which was the only science-related offer.

His work in the University was very intensive. He had to care for his Master degree and to teach two courses in Mathematics at the same time. This lead to very modest social life but he was aware of the Dixie Club (club for the students which were not from the same city) and the city life.

In June 1926 John graduated from Iowa State University and got married few days later. Later he and his wife became teachers in different cities but this did not last for a long time. His wife quit her job in order to go back to her husband and in after one year their oldest daughter was born. After these events they moved to Wisconsin where John became a doctoral student. Along with the birth of their other two kids, which were twins, he was working on his dissertation with topic “Dielectric Constant of the Helium”. It gave John then first insights about the complicated calculation. He spent tedious hours calculating and after finishing his work, he sets a goal to himself: to invent an easier and more efficient tool for calculations

The computer ABC

In the fall of 1930 John became a member of the Teaching Committee and a researcher in the fields of Mathematics and Physics. With his knowledge and academic experience is his moving slowly towards his final goal – better way of calculating the difficult problems from his dissertation. Later he becomes a doctor and a professor in Mathematics and Physics.

After numerous experiments with equipment and tools for calculations, John realized that there were two types – analog and digital. The term “digital” was not in use back in the day so he called them, “the better calculating machines”. By using technology for analysing the surface of materials, Atanasoff built a small calculator but was not satisfied with the result and concluded that it had all the flaws of the other analog systems, the accuracy was dependent of the properties of the components of the machine.

His motivation was extremely strong and this made him look for new solutions. The strong desire to solve the problem led him to insanity in the winter of 1937. One cold night, disappointed from his inability to deal with the problem, John got I his car and drove for miles without any particular direction. After driving all night he stopped in a pub near Illinois and drank a few glasses of bourbon. His thoughts were intense. In a while it all started to become clearer and clearer. Later he applied for funding based on these ideas and eventually received it. He employed the promising young electric engineer Clifford Berry and started working on the Atanasoff and Berry Computer (ABC). They were improving it day after day and when the patents were waiting for approval, the World War II started and the project was abandoned.

From 1949 to 1952 he was participating as a scientific advisor in numerous military organizations and operations. In 1952 he became a founder of The Ordnance Engineering Corporation which is later sold to Aerojet General Corporation. Later he worked as a manager and vice-president in the Atlantic Corp and retired in 1961.

In 1974 John returned to the Iowa State University as a guest and supervisor of the biggest student event of the nation: VEISHA. It comes from the first letters of the disciplines in the university: Veterinary Medicine, Engineering, Industrial Science, Home Economics ? Agriculture. There were more than 250 000 people and he was invited to come with his wife, two of his kids and their families as well. The third child, the oldest daughter, was in Indonesia and was not able to come to the event.

The inventor

As stated in his biography, John Atanasoff had the curiosity of an inventor from an early age. Jane Smiley writes in her book, The Man Who Invented the Computer, that Atanasoff's personality exhibited many of the psychological traits that mark inventors, including self-confidence, independence, high energy, willingness to take risks, above-average intelligence, openness to experience, and preference for complexity. Atanasoff was a highly creative problem solver who often recognized ways in which machines and processes could be improved.

These characteristics exhibited themselves in his invention of the ABC, but did not end there. Atanasoff's problem finding/problem solving character extended to improving upon several wide ranging topics and objects that resulted in 32 patents during his career, some of them including:

  1. 1947Method and apparatus for sweeping underwater mines
  2. 1948Method for cutting fusible fabrics
  3. WWII-eraCathode-ray tube
  4. 1948Electronic chassis
  5. 1960Sorting system for post office or parcel business

American National Biography notes that Atanasoff recognized the need for a universal binary computer alphabet for all human languages, an idea that anticipated ASCII and Unicode. Atanasoff also designed a new English alphabet to make learning and comprehension easier for children, thereby reducing illiteracy rates. More details about Atanasoff's experimentation and study of the creation of a new English alphabet and many of his other inventions can be found in the John Vincent Atanasoff Papers at Parks Library, Iowa State University Special Collections.