John Vincent Atanasoff

John Vincent Atanasoff pictured with the author’s son, Justin Kalk, holding a vacuum tube from the world’s first electronic digital computer.

It was nearing the end of 1984 and 1984 hadn’t happened. I was busy building the last computer to be used by the man who built the first one this world had ever known. I was building from a pre-determined pattern, a HeathKit design, while teaching modern computer applications to him. He had built his from scratch. And now he was teaching history, together with the fundamentals of computing, to me.

John Vincent Atanasoff, known to his friends as JV, was a Bulgarian immigrant to the United States. While working as a physics professor at Iowa State in 1938, he started construction on the world’s first electronic digital computer. He devised the possibility of “regenerative” memory while sitting in a roadhouse at Rock Island, Illinois during the winter of 1937. After driving home that night he made four decisions concerning the project. As he recalled:

  • He would use electricity and electronics as the media.
  • In spite of custom, he would use base-two numbers (binary).
  • He would use condensers for memory, but “regenerate” to avoid lapse.
  • He would compute by direct logical action, not by enumeration.

Atanasoff and his assistant, Clifford Berry, taught the ABC’s of computing to an evolving world. Through the Atanasoff Berry Computer (ABC), my mentor gave his students the power to quickly solve large-scale, simultaneous, linear algebraic equations.

As I finished reading the transcript of Atanasoff’s testimony in Honeywell versus Sperry Rand, I realized that JV was also the best math teacher I ever had. His grand overview of mathematics might have inspired me when I was a lackadaisical high-school student, if only I had met him earlier in life. Here’s what he said in part during that trial;

“We have a physically objective world, and then after a while we learn to measure in this world, and we gain experience with this world, through our senses. That is the objective world, and then we pass in to the mathematical world. In the mathematical world there are mathematical entities – “x”, “y”, numbers, and things of that kind. And we bring this mathematical world into isomorphism, or equality in structure with the objective world, so we can manipulate the mathematics and tell what the objective world is going to do; or, as Dirac – a great theoretical physicist said, to calculate numbers which can be compared with experience, and such is the meaning of all mathematics.

The theoretical physicist, or the mathematical physicist, or the physicist, in the more elementary sense, is merely an artist and he’s attempting to depict the external world in terms of these formulations of which I speak, and the question is, if the theory is real. Take Newton, Newton did this; he was a great painter and he painted the field of mechanics for us in certain equational form. Now, the interesting thing is, and the powerful thing is that if you manipulate these equations, they behave in an analogy with the physical world so that by examining these equations, you can tell what the physical world is doing – should do.

Now, suppose it doesn’t do it? Why then you have a case where the theory in question has broken down. And when I spoke of Einstein, I was speaking of certain slight deficiencies in Newton’s world. Newton did it first, then along came Einstein and Einstein noticed certain discrepancies in the world described by Newton, so he tried a new formulation, generated a new formulation for the theory of relativity, and his theory also is subject to criticism as time goes on.”

Had I known JV early on, I would not have been sitting in a college classroom trying to wrap my mind around programming concepts, even though I had never successfully completed a course in basic algebra. I also wouldn’t have been “learning” that ENIAC was the first electronic computer even though the patents had been overturned ten years earlier. On October 19, 1973, the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota, with Judge Earl R. Larson presiding, held that “…the invention claimed in the ENIAC was derived from Atanasoff.”

Many a fortune has been “derived” from the work of Atanasoff. He never received any royalties. Due in part to the confusion attending the war effort, Iowa State never filed for the patents. At the same time, Atanasoff had been pressed into service to do acoustics research on the Manhattan Project. It wasn’t until Sperry Corporation, holder of the ENIAC patents, attempted to charge royalties that researchers discovered Atanasoff’s contribution. As the forgotten Father of the Electronic Digital Computer, Atanasoff received very little recognition during most of his lifetime. Late in life, President George H. W. Bush awarded Atanasoff the United States National Medal of Technology, the highest U.S. honor conferred for achievements related to technological progress.

JV’s motivation was to empower physics students that were so bogged down with the algebra, they were missing the point of their physics lessons. Atanasoff was the teacher that first brought the electronic digital computer into the classroom .

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