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John Vincent Atanasoff

John Vincent Atanasoff
Atanasoff, in the 1990s.
Born (1903-10-04)October 4, 1903
Hamilton, New York, U.S.
Died June 15, 1995(1995-06-15) (aged 91)
Frederick, Maryland, U.S.
Citizenship American
Fields Physics
Doctoral advisor J. H. V. Vleck
Known for Atanasoff–Berry Computer
Notable awards Order of Saints Cyril and Methodius, First Class

John Vincent Atanasoff (October 4, 1903 – June 15, 1995) was a Bulgarian-American physicist and inventor, best known for inventing the first electronic digital computer.

Atanasoff invented the first electronic digital computer in the 1930s at Iowa State College. Challenges to his claim were resolved in 1973 when the Honeywell v. Sperry Rand lawsuit ruled that Atanasoff was the inventor of the computer.[1][2][3][4] His special-purpose machine has come to be called the Atanasoff–Berry Computer.


  • Early life and education 1
  • Computer development 2
  • Patent dispute 3
  • Postwar life 4
  • Heritage 5
  • Honors and distinctions 6
    • Named after Atanasoff 6.1
  • Selected bibliography 7
  • See also 8
  • Notes 9
  • References 10
  • Further reading 11
  • External links 12

Early life and education

Atanasoff, of Bulgarian, French and Irish ancestry, was born on October 4, 1903 in Hamilton, New York to an electrical engineer and a school teacher. Atanasoff's father, Ivan Atanasoff was born in 1876 in the village of Boyadzhik, close to Yambol, Bulgaria. While Ivan was still an infant, Ivan's own father was killed by Ottoman soldiers after the Bulgarian April Uprising.[5] In 1889, Ivan Atanasov immigrated to the United States with his uncle. Atanasoff's mother, Iva Lucena Purdy, was a teacher of mathematics.

Atanasoff was raised by his parents in Brewster, Florida. 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. In 1925, Atanasoff received his bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from the University of Florida, graduating with straight A's.

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

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. In 1936 he invented an analog calculator for analyzing surface geometry. The fine mechanical tolerance required for good accuracy pushed him to consider digital solutions.

According to Atanasoff, several operative principles of the Atanasoff–Berry Computer (ABC) were conceived by the professor in a flash of insight during the winter of 1937–1938 after a drive to Rock Island, Illinois. With a grant of $650 received in September 1939 (the equivalent of $8403 in 2010) and the assistance of his graduate student Clifford Berry, the ABC was prototyped by November of that year.

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 used separate regenerative capacitor memory that operated by a process still used today in DRAM memory.

Patent dispute

Between 1954 and 1973, Atanasoff was a witness in the legal actions brought by various parties to invalidate electronic computing patents issued to John 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.

Atanasoff first met 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. (During the Philadelphia trip, Atanasoff and Berry also conducted a patent search at the Patent Office in Washington, D.C.)

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. In September 1942 Atanasoff left Iowa State for a wartime assignment as Chief of the Acoustic Division with the Naval Ordnance Laboratory (NOL) in Washington, D.C.; no patent application for the ABC was subsequently filed by Iowa State College.

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.[6]

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. However, Atanasoff was also given the responsibility for designing acoustic systems for monitoring atomic bomb tests. That job was made the priority, and by the time he returned from the testing at Bikini Atoll in July 1946, the NOL computer project was shut down due to lack of progress, again on the advice of von Neumann.

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.[7]

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".

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.

In 1960 Atanasoff and his wife Alice moved to their hilltop farm in New Market, Maryland for their retirement. In 1961 he started another company, Cybernetics Incorporated, in Frederick, Maryland which he operated for 20 years. 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.

Atanasoff died in 1995 of a stroke at his home after a lengthy illness. He is buried in Pine Grove Cemetery in Mount Airy, Maryland.


Atanasov visited Bulgaria twice, in 1975 and 1985. He visited Boyadzik village, where his grandfather was shot by the Turks and was warmly welcomed by the locals and his fathers 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. A prize named John Atanasov is given every year in Bulgaria. An asteroid found at the Bulgarian astronomic observatory of Rozen, was named John Atanasov.

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.[8]

In 1990, President United States National Medal of Technology, the highest U.S. honor conferred for achievements related to technological progress.[9]

Other distinctions awarded to Atanasoff include:

Named after Atanasoff

  • Atanasoff Nunatak (a peak) on Livingston Island in the South Shetland Islands, Antarctica[11]
  • The asteroid (3546) Atanasoff, discovered by the Rozhen Observatory[12][13][14]
  • Atanasoff Hall, a computer science building on the Iowa State campus
  • Iowa State's implementation of MIT's Project Athena ("Project Vincent", after Atanasoff's middle name)
  • The John Atanasoff Award, established by President of Bulgaria to a young Bulgarian for achievements in the field of computer and information technologies and the information society of Bulgaria[15][16]
  • The John Atanasoff Technical College in the Bulgarian city of Plovdiv, a branch of the Technical University of Sofia[17]
  • The John Atanasoff Bulgarian national tournament in informatics and information technologies, held in the city of Shumen annually since 2001[18]
  • The John Atanasoff Professional High School of Electronics in the city of Stara Zagora, Bulgaria[19]
  • The John Atanasoff Professional High School of Electronics in Sofia[20]
  • The John Atanasoff Chitalishte (community cultural centre), Sofia[21]
  • The John Atanasoff Chitalishte, Boyadzhik Village, Bulgaria (the birthplace of Atanasoff’s father)[22]
  • Prof. John Atanasoff 4th Primary School, Sofia[23]
  • The John Atanasoff Private High School, Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria[24]
  • The John Atanasoff Professional Technical High School, Kyustendil, Bulgaria[25]
  • The John Atanasoff Bulgarian Language School, Chicago, Illinois, [26]
  • The John Atanasoff Professional High School of Economic Informatics, Targovishte, Bulgaria[27]
  • The John Atanasoff University Student Computer Club, Plovdiv University, Bulgaria[28]
  • John Atanasoff Street, Yambol, Bulgaria[29]
  • John Atanasoff Street, Sofia[30]

Selected bibliography

  • Atanasoff, John V. (July–September 1984). "Advent of the Electronic Digital Computing" (PDF).  
  • Atanasoff, John V. (1985). "The Beginning". Sofia: Narodna Mladezh Publishers.  (Bulgarian version of his 1984 paper).

See also


  1. ^ Invitation to Computer Science. Retrieved 2014-02-08. 
  2. ^ John Vincent Atanasoff. The father of the computer. (October 4, 1903 – June 15, 1995)
  3. ^ Kiplinger's Personal Finance. Retrieved 2014-02-08. 
  4. ^ Portraits in Silicon. Retrieved 2014-02-08. 
  5. ^ Atanasoff 1985.
  6. ^ Mollenhoff 1988, p. 62–66.
  7. ^ Mollenhoff 1988, pp. 81–86.
  8. ^ a b "Prof. Kiril Boyanov. John Vincent Atanasoff – The Inventor of the First Electronic Digital Computing." (PDF). Retrieved 2014-02-08. 
  9. ^ "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. 
  10. ^ a b Yambol Province Government. Website (in Bulgarian)
  11. ^ "SCAR Composite Antarctic Gazetteer entry". 2002-03-15. Retrieved 2014-02-08. 
  12. ^ "Minor Planet Names: Alphabetical List". Retrieved 2014-02-08. 
  13. ^ Schmadel 2000.
  14. ^ National Military University Website (in Bulgarian)
  15. ^ John Atanasoff Award
  16. ^ Bestowing the 2005 John Atanasoff Award. Iowa State University website.
  17. ^ John Atanasoff Technical College
  18. ^ The 7th John Atanasoff Tournament. Darik News website (in Bulgarian)
  19. ^ John Atanasoff Professional High School of Electronics, Stara Zagora
  20. ^ John Atanasoff Professional High School of Electronics, Sofia
  21. ^ Atanas Georgiev. "John Atanasoff Chitalishte, Sofia". Archived from the original on 18 April 2012. Retrieved 2014-02-08. 
  22. ^ Atanas Georgiev. "John Atanasoff Chitalishte, Boyadzhik". Archived from the original on 25 October 2007. Retrieved 2014-02-08. 
  23. ^ Prof. John Atanasoff Primary School, Sofia. Picture
  24. ^ John Atanasoff Private High School, Blagoevgrad
  25. ^ Страницата е генерирана за 0.55 сек. на 08.02.2014 02:54. "John Atanasoff Professional Technical High School, Kyustendil". Retrieved 2014-02-08. 
  26. ^ [2] Website
  27. ^ John Atanasoff Professional High School of Economic Informatics, Targovishte
  28. ^ John Atanasoff University Student Computer Club, Plovdiv University
  29. ^ "John Atanasoff Street, Yambol addressee". Retrieved 2014-02-08. 
  30. ^ "John Atanasoff Street, Sofia addressee". Retrieved 2014-02-08. 


  • Schmadel, Lutz D. (2000). Dictionary of Minor Planet Names. Springer-Verlag Telos.  

Further reading

  • Anellis, Irving H. (January 1997). "John Vincent Atanasoff—His Place in the History of Computer Logic and Technology". Modern Logic 7 (1). Retrieved 2015-06-04. 
  • Burton, Tammara (2006). World Changer. Sofia, Bulgaria: Tangra TanNakRa Publishing. p. 271. 
  • Do, Hien Chris. "John Vincent Atanasoff".  
  • Mackintosh, Allan R. (August 1988). "Dr. Atanasoff’s Computer". Scientific American. Archived from the original on 2009-10-31. 
  • Hollar, John (January 27, 2011). Revolutionaries: The Man Who Invented the Computer with Author Jane Smiley.  
  • Kang, Cecilia (November 18, 2010). After Words with Jane Smiley. (video) (National Cable Satellite Corporation). Retrieved 2015-06-04. 
  • Parashkevov, Atanas (June 1995). "John V. Atanasoff: Obituary". Virtual Museum of Computing. Archived from the original on 2009-09-17. 

External links

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