News Service


John Gustafson, (515) 292-7090
Tom Mitchell, ISU Foundation, (515) 294-4607
Tanya Zanish-Belcher, ISU Archives, (515) 294-6648
Skip Derra, News Service, (515) 294-4917


AMES, Iowa -- The family of John V. Atanasoff, including his widow Alice and son John V. Atanasoff II, have donated to Iowa State University papers, memorabilia, medals and other collections that belonged to the inventor of the first electronic digital computer.

An official donation of the memorabilia will take place at 4 p.m., June 4, in the Sun Room of the Memorial Union at Iowa State. The event is free and open to the public.

"The donation of these papers, books, notes, artifacts and other memorabilia provide an inside glimpse into the life of a man who was a genius of our time," said Iowa State President Martin Jischke.

The papers and memorabilia will be housed at the Iowa State University Archives. They chronicle the life of a man who not only invented the first electronic digital computer, but also several other devices. Some examples include: development of a binary alphabet (where letters would be represented by 1's and 0's rather than by ABC's); an egg testing device that could grade the quality of eggs; a breadboard testing device for rapid prototyping of electronic circuits; and a concrete- hulled, wind-powered boat.

Also included in the donation are: papers from the court case that proved Atanasoff was the founding father of modern computing with the invention of the Atanasoff-Berry Computer; patents on inventions, such as a low-frequency vibration device (1956) and a method and apparatus for sweeping a mine (1961); plans (not completed) for an international binary alphabet; several medals, including the Medal of Technology received from President George Bush; plans for a motorcycle- powered garden tractor; letters and other correspondence to former students and other professional acquaintances.

John Atanasoff was a professor at Iowa State in the 1920s and 30s. He received an M.S. from Iowa State (1926) and became a faculty member in the departments of mathematics and physics. From 1939-42, Atanasoff and graduate student Clifford Berry developed the Atanasoff-Berry Computer (ABC), the first electronic digital computer. Atanasoff left Iowa State to join the war effort and the ABC was never patented.

Like any inventor, Atanasoff had an extremely sharp, analytical mind. While he is best known as the inventor of the computer, he did not dwell on that single achievement, said John Gustafson, a computational scientist and one of the leaders in the project to build the ABC replica. Rather he saw opportunity and advancement in many phases of every day life. Also, like any inventor he saw things differently than most people.

"John Atanasoff was compulsively, restlessly creative," Gustafson said. "He was decades ahead of his time in his concept of 'information.' That shows up in his idea of a universal international binary alphabet and in features of his electronic computer. Those are things that the world has now embraced, but it took us until now to grasp what Atanasoff understood more than 50 years ago."

Most of the Atanasoff materials will be housed in University Archives, which is part of the Special Collections Department at the ISU Library. For additional information see

Some of the collection may form part of a display planned in honor of Atanasoff's work on the ABC. That display will include an exhibit that tells the story of the development of the Atanasoff-Berry Computer and the ABC replica, an authentic working model of the original computer.

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