John Vincent Atanasoff


Field: Computer Science

October 4, 1903-June 15, 1995

Father of the Electronic Digital Computer

Recognized as the "father of the electronic digital computer". In 1937 while sitting in a bar in Illinois, Atanasoff came up with the concepts that would help him design a computer that would utilize "regenerative memory" and "logic circuits." By 1939 a prototype machine known as the Atanasoff-Berry-Computer (ABC) had been built (Clifford Berry was Atanasoff's graduate assistant). In 1940 the construction of the ABC machine was completed and partially working. In the preface to his book about Atanasoff, Atanasoff: Forgotten Father of the Computer, Clark Mollenhoff writes that Atanasoff's machine was

[T]he world's first electronic digital computer, and it was designed to find solutions for simultaneous algebraic equations with up to 30 unknowns. Atanasoff's achievement made it obvious that the electronic computer would be useful in hundreds of ways.

It wasn't until the 1970s that Atanasoff received credit for achieving one of the most important technological breakthroughs of the century. Early computer histories credited John Mauchly and Presper Eckert with creating the first digital computer known as ENIAC. But subsequent developments including a decision by U.S. District Judge Earl R. Larson of Minneapolis on October 19, 1973 which settled six years of litigation, determined that Atanasoff was the inventor of the electronic digital computer.

John Vincent Atanasoff was born in New York. his father, Ivan, had come to the United States by way of Ellis Island from Bulgaria in 1889. Ivan received a degree from Colgate College but was primarily a self-taught electrical engineer. Atanasoff's mother, Iva Purdy, was a mathematics teacher. At the age of nine Atanasoff had become intrigued with his father's slide rule and apparently began to teach himself algebra.

He attended the University of Florida, receiving a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering in 1925. He went to the University of Iowa and received a master's degree in mathematics. That same year, 1926, he married Lura Meeks, a Home Economics major at Iowa. In July 1930 he received a doctorate in theoretical physics from the University of Wisconsin.

Atanasoff spent 15 years teaching at Iowa State University and in the early 1940s, during World War Two, he went to Washington, D.C. His work with the digital computer was put aside in Washington when he began working at the Naval Ordnance Lab in White Oak, Maryland. His work involved designing countermeasures for mines and depth charges.

By 1949 Atanasoff was the Chief Scientist for the Army Field Forces working out of Fort Monroe in Virginia. Also in 1949 his marriage to Lura fell apart and they divorced. Soon after, Atanasoff married Alice Crosby.

In 1952, Atanasoff started his own company, Ordnance Engineering Corporation which four years later was sold to another company. In 1990, President George Bush honored Atanasoff's achievements by awarding him the National Medal of Technology. Atanasoff died of a stroke on June 15, 1995 at his home in Monrovia, Maryland.

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John V. Atanasoff 1998 Cosmic Player Plate
Published: November 15, 1997
Copyright © 1997, 1998 by the Cosmic Baseball Association