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BIOGRAPHIES OF THE INVENTORS OF THE FIRST ELECTRONIC DIGITAL COMPUTER
John Vincent Atanasoff
John Vincent Atanasoff is the father of the first electronic digital computer. He received a B.S. from the University of Florida in 1925, an M.S. from Iowa State University in 1926 and a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in 1930.
After completing his Ph.D., Atanasoff joined the Iowa State faculty as a professor of physics and mathematics. In 1934, he began pursuing the idea of a computing machine that would simplify the tedious process of solving simultaneous equations. With the help of graduate student Clifford Berry, Atanasoff assembled and demonstrated the first electronic digital computer, the Atanasoff-Berry Computer (ABC), from 1939 to 1942.
Working in an unfinished basement of Iowa State's Physics Building, Atanasoff and Berry incorporated into the ABC a stunning array of advances that formed the basis of modern computing. These included the use of a binary system of arithmetic, separate memory and computing functions, regenerative memory, electronic amplifiers as on-off switches, parallel processing, circuits for logical addition and subtraction, clocked control of electronic operations and modular design construction.
During World War II, Atanasoff went to work for the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in Washington, D.C. He became a successful engineer and eventually established his own company. But recognition for his work on computers eluded him.
In 1963, the ABC became the subject of intense litigation. A court case (Honeywell Inc. vs. Sperry Rand Corp. et. al., 1973) overturned the patent on ENIAC, an early computer developed by John W. Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert. Ultimately, a federal judge ruled that not only was the ABC first, but that the inventors of the ENIAC borrowed many of ABC's design ideas such as using electronics to store numbers as sequences of ones and zeros, and using logical "and/or" switches to do arithmetic.
In recognition of his pioneering work in computing, Atanasoff was given the National Medal of Technology in 1990 by President George Bush.
Atanasoff also received other recognition, including the Distinguished Service Award presented by the U.S. Navy in 1945, and he held a number of honorary degrees. The son of a Bulgarian immigrant, he accepted the Order of Cyril and Methodius, First Class, from the Bulgarian government in 1970 for his computer achievements. Atanasoff also received the Computer Pioneer Medal in 1984 from the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.
Atanasoff's life and work were recognized and honored in two books: Alice R. and Arthur W. Burks, The First Electronic Computer: The Atanasoff Story, The University of Michigan Press, 1988; and Clark R. Mollenhoff's Atanasoff, Forgotten Father of the Computer, Iowa State University Press, 1988. He is also the subject of numerous articles including those in the Annals of the History of Computing, Scientific American, and Physics Today.
Atanasoff died in 1995 at the age of 91.
Clifford Berry received a B.S. in electrical engineering (1939), and his M.S. (1941) and Ph.D. (1948) degrees in physics from Iowa State. Berry's background in electrical engineering served him well as he assisted John Vincent Atanasoff in building both the prototype for the computer and the full-scale machine, called the Atanasoff-Berry Computer (ABC).
While a graduate student, Berry played an instrumental role in the design and construction of the original computer by developing the assembly procedure for the logic circuit, which was digital rather than analog. His "brilliance in electronics and mechanical innovations was vital to effective progress," said Atanasoff of Berry's contribution.
After graduation, Berry went on to a successful scientific career in the field of mass spectrometry. As a chief physicist for Consolidated Engineering Corp., Pasadena, Calif., (the forerunner of Bell & Howell and DuPont Instruments) he originated many features of mass spectrometers that are now standard. His development of ion sources, application systems and electronic data processing systems enabled mass spectrometry to be used on organic chemical problems, an application unique at that time.
Berry earned 43 patents in mass spectrometry and related areas of vacuum and electronic technology. He also published 19 scientific papers and was often a lecturer at scientific conferences and society meetings.
At the time of his death, Berry was the manager of Advanced Development, Vacuum-Electronics Engineering Corp., Long Island, N.Y. Berry died in 1963 at the age of 45.
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