Monday, October 03, 2011

Post 6: John Atanasoff

For this posting you will research the background of John Vincent Atanasoff, “the forgotten father of the computer.” Some suggested areas include: his Childhood and Family; Student years; Student and Professor at Iowa State College; Invention of the Digital Computer, the ABC; Other inventions; Legal battle between ENIAC and ABC; Bulgarian ancestry. Please don’t forget to list your sources.


Melinda Heinz said...

Family Life:

John was born in Hamilton, New York in 1903. He was the son of a Bulgarian immigrant. His mother was a math teacher and is perhaps where some of John's mathematical abilities came from. John came from a large family, including eight other siblings.

He went on to meet his first wife, Lura Meeks at a club event when he was a student at Iowa State University. The couple married shortly after John obtained his master's degree and went on to have three children of their own.

John and Lura's marriage ended in divorce. Later in life, John married his second wife, Alice Crosby.

Jasmine Qu said...

JOHN VINCENT ATANASOFF (October 4, 1903 – June 15, 1995) was born in the farm of his grandfather a few miles west of Hamilton, New York.

John Vincent’s father, Ivan Atanasoff, was born in the village of Boyadjick, Bulgaria. Before the outbreak of the uprising, the Turkish governors forced the people of the village of Boyadjik (present Boyadjik, Yambol Region in Bulgaria) to leave their houses and then they burnt them. As Ivan’s father (John’s grandfather) ran with Ivan in his hands, followed by his mother, a group of Turkish soldiers shot him in the chest. The bullet, which killed him, left a scar on the forehead of Ivan for the rest of his life.

In 1889, when Ivan Atanasoff was 13 years old, he emigrated to the United States accompanied by his uncle. His Bulgarian name is Ivan Atanasov. Immigration officials at Ellis Island changed his last name to Atanasoff when he arrived with an uncle.
He later married Iva Lucena Purdy (1881-1983), a mathematics teacher. Iva Lucena Purdy (see photo is from an old American family of Ireland origin, a daughter of Monmouth Floyd Purdy (1842-1921) and Mary Celestia Tackleberry. Ivan and Iva had nine children (one of whom died): John, Ethelyn, Margaret, Theodore, Avis, Raymond, Melva, Irving.

When John Vincent was to enter high school, his father accepted an electrical engineering position is Osteen, Florida, and subsequently, in Brewster, Florida. It was here that John completed grade school and started understanding the concepts of electricity. The Atanasoff home in Brewster was the first house they lived in with electricity, and John, as a 9-year-old boy found and corrected faulty electric wiring in a back-porch light.

John’s mother influenced him a lot in mathematics. He became interested in the mathematical principles behind the operation of the slide rule and the study of logarithms which led to studies in trigonometric functions. With the help of his mother, he read A College Algebra, by J.M. Taylor. This book included a beginning study on differential calculus and also had a chapter on infinite series and how to calculate logarithms. Within a few months, the precocious 9-year-old had progressed beyond the point of needing help. During this time, he learned about number bases other than ten from his mother; this led him to study a wide range of bases, including base-two.

Jasmine Qu said...

John's family and family influence of science on him~

anniken said...

The Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer (ENIAC) was built at Moore School of Engineering (University of Pennsylvania). John Mauchly, a physicist, and J. Presper Eckert, an engineer, were behind the invention, and it was completed in 1945. Considered the first successful digital computer, it weighed in at 60 thousand pounds. It was not suited for storing information, and it had to be reprogrammed for each task. The machine also contained more than 18,000 vaccuum tubes – 2,000 of which had to be replaced each month.

Conceived in 1937, however, was the ABC-computer. It was smaller than the ENIAC, about the size of a desk, with about 270 tubes. It was built by John Vincent Atanasoff and Clifford Berry at Iowa State University, and work started on it 1939 when Atanasoff received a $650 grant. This computer was completed in 1942, and it too had to be programmed for each problem solving task. It was named after its two inventors (Atanasoff-Berry Computer - ABC).

Iowa State hired a patent lawyer based in Chicago, Richard R. Texler, but the patenting was never completed. The ENIAC was therefore thought to be the first electronic computer, but in a 1973-trial, this was disputed and the court found that the ABC-computer was indeed the first of its kind.

Attorneys representing Honeywell, Control Data Company and General Electric contacted Atanasoff in the spring of 1967 regarding “the ENIAC PATENTS”. There was controversy in the works, as Sperry Rand had purchased ENIAC from the inventors and now seeked patent fees from all companies in the business of manufacturing electronic computers. Honeywell and Control Data Company hired Atanasoff as a consultant, and provided all available information and also agreed to be a witness at the trial.

The trial, Sperry Rand Corporation vs. Honeywell, started on June 1st 1975 and the court spent 135 days on it – 77 witnesses gave their testimony in court, and another 80 witnesses were presented through deposition transcripts. John Mauchly, the physicist who worked on the ENIAC, changed his testimony three times, but it was proved during the trial that he had met with Atanasoff in December of 1940. In addition to giving details about his project to Mauchly, Atanasoff had also invited him, per letter on March 7th 1941, to come visit him in Iowa and see the computer for himself. He did; for five days in June 1941, Mauchly was a guest in Atanasoffs’ home in Ames and spent time discussing the ABC and computer theory with both his host and Berry.

United States District Judge Earl Richard Larson found in favor of Honeywell on October 19, 1973, and declared 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.”

Ryan Jacobson said...

I found this webpage that goes into a lot of interesting details about the timeline of his invention. Here is an interesting excerpt:

Atanasoff never did earn any money from his invention. He said "I wasn't possessed with the idea I had invented the first computing machine. If I had known the things I had in my machine, I would have kept going on it." After his retiring in 1961, he used to work on private projects, when in the spring of 1967 he was contacted, for his surprise, by the attorneys of three huge computer companies—Control Data Company (CDC), Honeywell and General Electric, regarding controversy with the Sperry Rand Corporation over what was called generally "the ENIAC PATENTS". The inventors of the computer ENIAC John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert applied for the patent of his machine in 1947, the patent was granted in 1964. Meanwhile Sperry Rand had purchased the company of Mauchly and Eckert and together with the company—the patent rights, so not only Honeywell, but all the companies, manufacturing electronic computers, were supposed to pay patent fees. The lawyers of Honeywell and Control Data somehow managed to learn about the computer of Atanasoff. Until this moment the computer of Atanasoff has been mentioned only in 3 short newspaper messages from 1940s (see the upper photo), and in the book Electronic Digital Systems of R. K. Richards, published in 1966. Richards was an Ames friend of Berry, who had seen the Atanasoff machine in 1941, so his book was probably the source of information for the attorneys.

It goes into long details about the legal battle that followed. Too long to copy & paste it all here, so I'd recommend reading it yourself:

Yuwei Sun said...

John Atanasoff’s student years

John went to grade school in Brewster, Florid. His grade school years were normal and he had a youthful interest in sport, especially in Baseball. Then later he became totally fascinated with a Dietzgen slide rule his father bought at the age of nine. It led him became interested in mathematical principles and logarithms.

His family moved to a farm in Old Chicora, Florida when he was entered high school. He completed the Mulberry High School course in two years, excelling in science and mathematics. By that time, he wanted to be a theoretic physicist.

In the year of 1921, when he was 18 years old, he went to the University of Florida in Gainesville and graduated in 1925, receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering with straight “A”’s. Then he received many teaching fellowships offers including one from Harvard, he decided to go to Iowa State College (the name changed to Iowa State University in 1959) which has a fine reputation in engineering and sciences.

In 1925, John moved to Ames, Iowa began his graduate study. He had quite a busy life in Iowa State College. He did not have time to social but he was familiar with one campus club called Dixie Club which organized for southern students away from home. It was in that club he met his first wife Lura Meeks.

John received his master degree in mathematics in 1926. Later, John and his wife Lura and daughter moved to Madison, Wisconsin where he had been selected as a doctoral candidate. During his PHD study, he developed an interest in a better and faster computing machine.

In 1930, John received his PHD in theoretical physics with his thesis, “The Dielectric Constant of Helium”. His formal education completed by then.

1n 1930, He returned to Iowa State College and became an assistant professor in mathematics and physics there.

Ames Lab

Jennifer Chen said...

Professional Life:
After receiving his master's degree, John Vincent went to the University of Wisconsin for his doctorate in theoretic physics. In the same year that John Vincent was accepted as a doctoral candidate, his wife gave birth to their eldest daughter, Elsie. In 1930, John Vincent Atanasoff received his Ph.D. as a theoretic physicist from the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Atanasoff then returned to Iowa State College as an assistant professor in mathematics and physics.

Dr. Atanasoff had always been interested in finding new ways to perform mathematical computations faster. Dr. Atanasoff examined many of the computational devices that existed at that time. These included the Monroe calculator and the International Business Machines (IBM) tabulator. Dr. Atanasoff concluded that these devices were slow and inaccurate.

After being promoted to associate professor of mathematics and physics, Dr. Atanasoff began to envision a computational device that was "digital." He believed that analog devices were too restrictive and could not get the type of accuracy he wanted. The idea of building an electronic digital computer came to him while he was sitting in a tavern. Dr. Atanasoff came up with four principles for his electronic digital computer.

He would use electricity and electronics as the medium for the computer.
In spite of custom, he would use base-two numbers (the binary system for his computer.
He would use condensers for memory and would use a regenerative or "jogging" process to avoid lapses that might be caused by leakage of power.
He would compute by direct logical action and not by enumeration as used in analog calculating devices. (Mollenhoff, 34)
As Dr. Atanasoff worked on his computer project, he asked a colleague to recommend a graduate student to assist him with his project. The graduate student that was introduced to him was Clifford Berry. Berry was gifted electrical engineer and had very similar background as Dr. Atanasoff did. They both got along almost immediately.

In December 1939, the first prototype of the Atanasoff Berry Computer (ABC) was ready. The ABC showed some of the potentials of a computer and it amazed the University. So in 1939, Dr. Atanasoff and his assistant Clifford Berry built the world's first electronic digital computer. With the first prototype working well, Dr. Atanasoff wanted to improve on prototype as well as get patents for the Atanasoff Berry Computer. Obtaining the patents were a slow process that ultimately caused Dr. Atanasoff the recognition that he deserved.

In 1940 Dr. Atanasoff attended a lecture given by Dr. John W. Mauchly. They talked for some time and Dr. Mauchly was very intrigued with Dr. Atanasoff's electronic digital computer. Dr. Mauchly wanted to see the ABC for himself and Dr. Atanasoff agreed. This decision by Dr. Atanasoff would be a mistake since Dr. Mauchly later used many of Dr. Atanasoff's ideas in the design of the ENIAC. The ENIAC is falsely considered by most people as the world's first electronic digital computer designed by Dr. Mauchly and Dr. Eckert. Charges of piracy were later brought against Dr. Mauchly, co-inventor of the ENIAC. A long trial followed and it was not until 1972 that Dr. Atanasoff was given the recognition he so deserved. U.S. District Judge Earl R. Larson ruled that the ENIAC was "derived" from the ideas of Dr. Atanasoff. Although Judge Larson did not explicitly say that Dr. Mauchly "stole" Dr. Atanasoff's ideas, Judge Larson did say that Dr. Mauchly had use many of Dr. Atanasoff's ideas on the ABC to design the ENIAC. When the trial finally ended, Dr. Atanasoff was given credit as the inventor of the electronic digital computer.


Bill said...

I think the life of John Atanasoff has been pretty exhaustivley covered by my classmates at this hour. But while reading up on the man it remided me of Alan Turing, another long-forgotten father (or possibly uncle) of the computer.

Alan Turing was a British mathematician who was instrumental in advancing coputer technology and using it to construct a machine that could break the Nazi "Enigma Code" which was long thought to be unbreakable. Turing advanced Atanasoff's three principles of computing into a theory of coputational completeness also called "Turing completeness" But, much like Atanasoff, Turing was long-denied the recognition he deserved for his innovations.

Turing's invention, the Colussus machine, which became operational in 1943, was able to decode intercepted Nazi radio messages between submarines and effectively pinpoint u-boat locations for Allied sub-hunting planes which facillitated the destruction of the Nazi fleet. After the war, Turing enjoyed a career as one of the world's most sought-after experts computing. This all ended in 1952 when he was tried and convicted of being homosexual. Turing was immediately denied permission to work on top-secret projects in England and denied entrance to the United States, thereby effectively ending his once promising career. He committed suicide by eating a cyanide-laced apple less than two years later.

Like Atanasoff, it took almost a half century for Turing to get the full credit he deserved for his contributions to science.

On a personal note, it is INSANE to me that the United States and Iowa State University had in their possession a machine that could have helped to break Axis codes even earlier than Turing Colossus but their innability to grasp the importance of the machine perhaps doomed thousands of allied servicemen to premature deaths. It is also amazing how men who, independent of one another, invented such powerful machines were, for equally different reasons, denied the recognition they deserved for their contributions.

Side note: I've seen some pretty awesome ISU coffee mugs that feature a schematic drawing of the ABC computer on them.