John Vincent Atanasoff, OCM, (October 4, 1903 – June 15, 1995) was an American physicist and inventor credited with inventing the first electronic digital computer.[1] Atanasoff invented the first electronic digital computer in the 1930s at Iowa State College (now known as Iowa State University). Challenges to his claim were resolved in 1973 when the Honeywell v. Sperry Rand lawsuit ruled that Atanasoff was the inventor of the computer.[2][3][4][5] His special-purpose machine has come to be called the Atanasoff–Berry Computer.

John Vincent Atanasoff

Atanasoff in the 1990s
Born(1903-10-04)October 4, 1903
DiedJune 15, 1995(1995-06-15) (aged 91)
Alma materUniversity of Florida
Iowa State University
University of Wisconsin–Madison
Known forAtanasoff–Berry Computer
AwardsOrder of Saints Cyril and Methodius, First Class
Scientific career
Doctoral advisorJ. H. V. Vleck

Early life and education

Atanasoff was born on October 4, 1903, in Hamilton, New York to an electrical engineer and a school teacher.[6] Atanasoff's father, Ivan Atanasov, was of Bulgarian origin, born in 1876 in the village of Boyadzhik, close to Yambol, then in the Ottoman Empire. While Ivan Atanasov was still an infant, his own father was killed by Ottoman soldiers after the Bulgarian April Uprising.[7] In 1889, Ivan immigrated to the United States with his uncle. John's father later became an electrical engineer, whereas his mother, Iva Lucena Purdy (of mixed French and Irish ancestry), was a teacher of mathematics.[8][9][10]

Atanasoff was raised in Brewster, Florida. Young Atanasoff's ambitions and intellectual pursuits were in part influenced by his parents, whose interests in the natural and applied sciences cultivated in him a sense of critical curiosity and confidence.[citation needed] At the age of nine, he learned to use a slide rule, followed shortly by the study of logarithms, and subsequently completed high school at Mulberry High School in two years.[citation needed] In 1925, Atanasoff received his Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering from the University of Florida.[6]

He continued his education at Iowa State College and in 1926 earned a master's degree in mathematics.[6] He completed his formal education in 1930 by earning a PhD in theoretical physics from the University of Wisconsin–Madison with his thesis, The Dielectric Constant of Helium.[6] Upon completion of his doctorate, Atanasoff accepted an assistant professorship at Iowa State College in mathematics and physics.[citation needed]

Computer development

1997 replica of the Atanasoff–Berry Computer at Durham Center, Iowa State University

Partly due to the drudgery of using the mechanical Monroe calculator, which was the best tool available to him while he was writing his doctoral thesis, Atanasoff began to search for faster methods of computation. At Iowa State, Atanasoff researched the use of slaved Monroe calculators and IBM tabulators for scientific problems, with which controlled the Monroe using the output of an IBM. In 1936 he invented an analog calculator for analyzing surface geometry. At this point, he was pushing the boundaries of what gears could do and the fine mechanical tolerance required for good accuracy pushed him to consider digital solutions.

With a grant of $650 received in September 1939 and the assistance of his graduate student Clifford Berry, the Atanasoff–Berry Computer (ABC) was prototyped by November of that year. According to Atanasoff, several operative principles of the ABC were conceived by him during the winter of 1938 after a drive to Rock Island, Illinois.

The key ideas employed in the ABC included binary math and Boolean logic to solve up to 29 simultaneous linear equations. The ABC had no central processing unit (CPU), but was designed as an electronic device using vacuum tubes for digital computation. It also had regenerative capacitor memory that operated by a process similar to that used today in DRAM memory.

Patent dispute

Atanasoff first met John Mauchly at the December 1940 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Philadelphia, where Mauchly was demonstrating his "harmonic analyzer", an analog calculator for analysis of weather data. Atanasoff told Mauchly about his new digital device and invited him to see it.[citation needed]

In June 1941 Mauchly visited Atanasoff in Ames, Iowa for four days, staying as his houseguest. Atanasoff and Mauchly discussed the prototype ABC, examined it, and reviewed Atanasoff's design manuscript.[citation needed] In 1941 Atanasoff left Iowa State for a wartime assignment as Chief of the Acoustic Division with the Naval Ordnance Laboratory (NOL) in Washington, D.C.[6] No patent application for the ABC was subsequently filed by Iowa State College.[citation needed]

Mauchly visited Atanasoff multiple times in Washington during 1943 and discussed computing theories, but did not mention that he was working on a computer project himself until early 1944.[11]

By 1945 the U.S. Navy had decided to build a large-scale computer, on the advice of John von Neumann. Atanasoff was put in charge of the project, and he asked Mauchly to help with job descriptions for the necessary staff.[citation needed] However, Atanasoff was also given the responsibility of designing acoustic systems for monitoring atomic bomb tests.[citation needed] That job was made the priority, and he participated in the testing at Bikini Atoll in July 1946.[6] By the time he returned from the testing the NOL computer project was shut down due to lack of progress, again on the advice of von Neumann.[citation needed]

In June 1954 IBM patent attorney A. J. Etienne sought Atanasoff's help in breaking an Eckert–Mauchly patent on a revolving magnetic memory drum, having been alerted by Clifford Berry that the ABC's revolving capacitor memory drum may have constituted prior art. Atanasoff agreed to assist the attorney, but IBM ultimately entered a patent-sharing agreement with Sperry Rand, the owners of the Eckert–Mauchly memory patent, and the case was dropped.[12]

Atanasoff was deposed and testified at trial in the later action Honeywell v. Sperry Rand. In that case's decision, Judge Earl R. Larson found 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".

Between 1954 and 1973, Atanasoff was a witness in the legal actions brought by various parties to invalidate electronic computing patents issued to Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert, which were owned by computer manufacturer Sperry Rand. In the 1973 decision of Honeywell v. Sperry Rand, a federal judge named Atanasoff the inventor of the electronic digital computer.

Postwar life

Following World War II Atanasoff remained with the government and developed specialized seismographs and microbarographs for long-range explosive detection. In 1952 he founded and led the Ordnance Engineering Corporation, selling the company to Aerojet General Corporation in 1956 and becoming Aerojet's Atlantic Division president.[6] He retired from Aerojet in 1961.[6]

In 1960 Atanasoff and his wife Alice moved to their hilltop farm in New Market, Maryland for their retirement.[citation needed] In 1961 he started another company, Cybernetics Incorporated, in Frederick, Maryland which he operated for 20 years.[citation needed] He developed a phonetic alphabet for computers during this period of his life.[6] He was gradually drawn into the legal disputes being contested by the fast-growing computer companies Honeywell and Sperry Rand. Following the resolution of Honeywell v. Sperry Rand, Atanasoff was warmly honored by Iowa State College, which had since become Iowa State University, and more awards followed.[citation needed]

Atanasoff died at the age of 91 on June 15, 1995, of a stroke at his home after a lengthy illness.[6] He is buried in Pine Grove Cemetery in Mount Airy, Maryland.[citation needed]


Atanasoff visited Bulgaria twice, in 1975 and 1985.[13] He visited Boyadzhik village, where his grandfather had been shot by the Ottoman Turks, and was warmly welcomed by the locals and his father's relatives. He was made an honorable citizen of the town of Yambol, and received the "Key of the Town". He was also given various titles by the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. The John Atanasov prize is awarded every year in Bulgaria. The 3546 Atanasoff asteroid found at the Bulgarian astronomic observatory of Rozen, was named after him.[14]

Honors and distinctions

Monument to John Atanasoff in Sofia, Bulgaria

Atanasoff's first national award for scientific achievements was the Order of Saints Cyril and Methodius, First Class, Bulgaria's highest scientific honor bestowed to him in 1970, before the 1973 court ruling.[15]

In 1990, 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.[16]

Other distinctions awarded to Atanasoff include:

Named after Atanasoff

Selected bibliography

  • Atanasoff, John V. (July–September 1984). "Advent of the Electronic Digital Computing". IEEE Annals of the History of Computing. 6 (3): 229–282. doi:10.1109/MAHC.1984.10028. ISSN 1058-6180. S2CID 34553374.
  • Atanasoff, John V. (1985). "The Beginning". Sofia: Narodna Mladezh Publishers. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help) (Bulgarian version of his 1984 paper).

See also


  1. ^ "Atanasoff, John Vincent". Who's Who in America 1995. Vol. 1 (A-K) (49th ed.). New Providence, NJ: Marquis Who's Who. 1994. p. 129. ISBN 0837901596. Retrieved January 22, 2020 – via Internet Archive.
  2. ^ Invitation to Computer Science. Retrieved February 8, 2014.
  3. ^ John Vincent Atanasoff. The father of the computer. (October 4, 1903 – June 15, 1995)
  4. ^ Kiplinger's Personal Finance. Retrieved February 8, 2014.
  5. ^ Portraits in Silicon. Retrieved February 8, 2014.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Walter R. Baranger (June 17, 1995). "John V. Atanasoff, 91, Dies; Early Computer Researcher". The New York Times.
  7. ^ Atanasoff 1985.
  8. ^ The first electronic digital computer working on a binary code and using mathematical logic had been created in 1937-1942 by the American physicist of the Irish-Bulgarian origin John Vincent Atanasoff (1903-1995.) For more see: Mikhail Mikhailov (2005) Key to the Vedas, Belarusian Information Center, p. 62, ISBN 9856701872.
  9. ^ My mother (she is still alive, at 89 years of age) is a typical American with a mixture of Irish, English and French blood, so that the Bulgarian language was never spoken in our house. For more see: Blagovest Sendov (2003) John Atanasoff: The Electronic Prometheus, St. Kliment Ohridski University Press, Sofia, p. 57, ISBN 954071849X.
  10. ^ During his variegated life, Atanasoff met and married a teacher of Mathematics, called Iva, with Irish and French blood in her veins. His wife bore eight children, one of whom was christened by his mother John – Vincent. For more see: Dimitar Shishko (2001) John Atanasoff: The Father of the Computer, Tangra TanNakRa, p. 59, ISBN 9549942244.
  11. ^ Mollenhoff 1988, p. 62–66.
  12. ^ Mollenhoff 1988, pp. 81–86.
  13. ^[bare URL]
  14. ^ "Minor Planet Center, object 3546". Minor Planet Center. Retrieved November 2, 2016.
  15. ^ a b "Prof. Kiril Boyanov. John Vincent Atanasoff – The Inventor of the First Electronic Digital Computing" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on February 21, 2014. Retrieved February 8, 2014.
  16. ^ "Honoring Dr. John Atanasoff on the One Hundredth Anniversary of His Birth". Congressional Record – Extensions of Remarks. October 30, 2003. pp. E2159–2160. Retrieved May 15, 2009.
  17. ^ Loevinger, Vee (1996). "The Inventor of the Electronic Computer--The Cosmos Club Member Who Changed Our World". Cosmos Journal. 6. Retrieved March 27, 2023.
  18. ^ Boyanov, Kiril Lubenov (2003). "John Vincent Atanasoff: The inventor of the first electronic digital computing". Proceedings of the 4th international conference conference on Computer systems and technologies e-Learning - CompSysTech '03. pp. 1–7. doi:10.1145/973620.973621. ISBN 9549641333. S2CID 28795679.
  19. ^ a b Yambol Province Government. Archived June 11, 2008, at the Wayback Machine Website (in Bulgarian)
  20. ^ Boshart, Rod (May 30, 2014). "Kenneth Quinn presented the Iowa Award". Muscatine Journal. Retrieved November 1, 2020.
  21. ^ "SCAR Composite Antarctic Gazetteer entry". March 15, 2002. Retrieved February 8, 2014.
  22. ^ "Minor Planet Names: Alphabetical List". Retrieved February 8, 2014.
  23. ^ Schmadel 2000.
  24. ^ National Military University Archived January 10, 2008, at the Wayback Machine Website (in Bulgarian)
  25. ^ John Atanasoff Award Archived June 10, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  26. ^ Bestowing the 2005 John Atanasoff Award. Archived June 13, 2008, at the Wayback Machine Iowa State University website.
  27. ^ John Atanasoff Technical College
  28. ^ The 7th John Atanasoff Tournament. Darik News website (in Bulgarian)
  29. ^ John Atanasoff Professional High School of Electronics, Stara Zagora Archived January 4, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  30. ^ John Atanasoff Professional High School of Electronics, Sofia Archived June 10, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  31. ^ Atanas Georgiev. "John Atanasoff Chitalishte, Sofia". Archived from the original on April 18, 2012. Retrieved February 8, 2014.
  32. ^ Atanas Georgiev. "John Atanasoff Chitalishte, Boyadzhik". Archived from the original on October 25, 2007. Retrieved February 8, 2014.
  33. ^ Prof. John Atanasoff Primary School, Sofia. Picture
  34. ^ John Atanasoff Private High School, Blagoevgrad Archived February 16, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  35. ^ Страницата е генерирана за 0.55 сек. на 08.02.2014 02:54. "John Atanasoff Professional Technical High School, Kyustendil". Retrieved February 8, 2014.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  36. ^ [1] Website
  37. ^ John Atanasoff Professional High School of Economic Informatics, Targovishte
  38. ^ John Atanasoff University Student Computer Club, Plovdiv University Archived October 24, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  39. ^ "John Atanasoff Street, Yambol addressee". Retrieved February 8, 2014.
  40. ^ "John Atanasoff Street, Sofia addressee". Archived from the original on June 10, 2008. Retrieved February 8, 2014.


Further reading


External links