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Roll Call

The Atanasoff Berry Computer

By Angela Rolls

The Controversy Behind the World's First Digital Computer


John Vincent Atanasoff was born in 1903 to a family that highly valued education and hard work and John excelled in his studies. He graduated high school at age 15 and went on to receive a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering with a straight A average. His PhD in theoretical physics wouldn't be the end of his educational journey; he was a professor of mathematics and physics at Iowa State College when his obsession to create a device that was able to quickly and accurately solve large, complicated equations intensified.

During his graduate studies he had heavily relied on the Monroe Calculator; he understood its limitations and wanted to create a better device but found himself unable to clearly decipher his thoughts. One evening in 1937, frustrated with the inability to sort his cogitations into a workable design, he took off on a drive... but not just any drive. This particular drive would end up changing the world as we know it.

At the time Iowa was a dry state and Atanasoff wanted a drink to abolish his frustrations. He left without a particular destination in mind and ended up over 200 miles away in Rock Island, Illinois, where he was finally able to order himself a cocktail. As he sat down he realized the drive had relieved his mind of clutter. Four separate ideas began to intersect and he scribbled his intellections on a cocktail napkin. He was later quoted, stating, "It was at an evening of scotch and 100 mph car rides, when the concept came..."

Electricity would be used for the media to provide speed and the binary number system would simplify the computational process. Computing with direct logical action would increase accuracy and allow memory and computation to remain separate and using regenerative memory would reduce the cost of building the machine.

Atanasoff presented his idea to Iowa State College and was provided with a grant for the creation of his device. In 1939 he hired a gifted graduate student, Clifford Berry. Berry had also accelerated his early education; he was completing his graduate studies in physics when he was hired by Atanasoff.

Together the two prototyped the Atanasoff-Berry Computer (ABC) in the fall of 1939 and continued improving their design through 1942, when Atanasoff left for a position in the Navy. Berry also left for a defense related job soon after Atanasoff's departure. Sometime after the two had left, Iowa State College dismantled the project without informing Atanasoff or Berry.

World's First Digital Computer"Atanasoff Berry Computer". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The ABC weighed over seven hundred pounds and could solve up to 29 simultaneous linear equations. It had no central processing unit (CPU), but used 280 dual-triode vacuum tubes for digital computation. Its memory contained 1600 capacitors organized into 32 bands that rotated on a common shaft once per second within a pair of drums. This allowed the ABC to have a computation speed of 30 actions per second. Data was represented as 50-bit binary numbers. Some of its design concepts are still used in computing devices today.

Iowa State College had hired a patent lawyer, Richard R. Trexler, to help process the patent, but somehow it was never completed, the reason behind which still remains a mystery. In 1964, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) was granted a patent and was recognized as the first digital electronic computing device. Its inventors John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert received the credit for its creation, until a federal court case ruling in 1973, determined that, "Eckert and Mauchly did not themselves first invent the automatic electronic digital computer, but instead derived that subject matter from one Dr. John Vincent Atanasoff." The ENIAC's patent was therefore invalidated.

It wasn't until Atanasoff testified in the trial (Clifford Berry did not testify, he had suddenly died in 1963) that it was revealed that Mauchly had spent significant time and had several detailed discussions with Atanasoff and Berry about the ABC. Mauchly had even been Atanasoff's houseguest for five days in 1941 during which he had access to the ABC's manual.

In the end, Atanasoff did not make any money off of his invention, but he was rightfully credited as being the developer of the world's first digital computer. So there you have the complicated history of the world's first digital computer. Do you have any electronic trivia you'd like to share? Email us at [email protected].

Angela Rolls holds a Bachelor of Science in Communication Studies from Grand Valley State University. Originally from Michigan, she currently resides in California's Silicon Valley. Her interests include animals, traveling, writing, science and photography.