John Atanasoff Biography (1903-1995)

mathematician and computer inventor

John Atanasoff is recognized as the first designer of an electronic digital computer. He was born in Hamilton, New York, into a family of mathematicians.His father was an electrical engineer, his mother a mathematics teacher. Atanasoff was raised in Florida, and he loved science and engineering as a child.He earned an engineering degree from the University of Florida in 1925, thendid graduate studies in mathematics, receiving a master's degree from Iowa State College (now University) in 1926 and a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in 1930, after which he joined Iowa State's mathematics and physics faculties. Atanasoff determined to improve computing machines so it would be easier for his graduate students to perform mathematical calculations. From thefirst, he wanted a digital device, but was unable to develop the concept. Then one winter night in 1937, while on a long drive to clear his mind, he stopped off at a roadside tavern. Suddenly, the entire concept came to him. He could use vacuum tubes as the computing medium, binary (base 2) numbers, serialcalculation, and condensers that placed a charge on Bakelite (plastic) drumsas the computer's memory. Each drum held thirty fifty-digit numbers. Punchedcards provided input and output, but each step had to be hand-started. Atanasoff and a graduate student, Clifford Berry , built working portions of the A-B-C (Atanasoff-Berry Computer) over the next two years, but the university refused to patent it for him. During World War II, John Mauchly and J. PresperEckert designed and patented the ENIAC computer, later selling their patentsto the manufacturer Sperry Rand. After a bitter court battle, in 1973 Atanasoff was awarded the patent instead, on the ground that Mauchly and Eckert hadknowledge of the A-B-C and used its design as the basis for theirs. Atanasoff's other interests have included acoustics detection and package-handling automation. In 1990, Atanasoff received the National Medal of Technology.

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