Baranger, Walter R. "John V. Atanasoff, 91, Dies; Early Computer Researcher," New York

 

Baranger, Walter R. "John V. Atanasoff, 91, Dies; Early Computer Researcher," New York
Times, 17 June 1994, p. 11.

John Vincent Atanasoff, a physicist whose pioneering computer research in the 1930s was
overshadowed by the successes of wartime computers died on Thursday in Frederick, Md., where
he lived. He was 91.

The cause was a stroke, said Steve Jones, a spokesman for Iowa State University.

Working at Iowa State in the last 1930s and early 1940s, Dr. Atanasoff and a graduate student,
Clifford Berry, invented a digital computer device called the Atanasoff-Berry Computer, or ABC,
the could solve a certain type of algebraic problem. In the 1970s, a Federal court rules that the
device was a predecessor of the successful Eniac computer, voiding a crucial patent filed by
Eniac's inventors and casting doubt on previous accounts of the early days of computing.

There is no doubt, however, that Dr. Atanasoff's device was unlike the mechanical calculators of
the era. It had a distinctive look, with two knobby rotating drums that contained capacitors.
Electrical charges held by the capacitors served as ABC's memory, and data was entered using
punch cards. To print out the results, an electric spark was passed through other cards; the
arrangement of burned spots represented answers, which could be fed into the computer again for
further analysis.

Despite its strange appearance, ABC used the latest 1930s technology, including vacuum-tube
switches that processed binary numbers, and it cost just $1,000.

But ABC suffered from serious shortcomings" it could not be reprogrammed and it was
unreliable when dealing with large problems. Critics later pointed to ABC's flaws when arguing
that it was actually an electronic calculator, not a computer. Still, many computer historians
recognize ABC as the first electronic digital computer of any kind.

The history of the digital electronic computing is complicated because several major projects -
including Eniac, several Harvard University machines and a British computer called Colossus -
were built in various levels of secrecy during the war years. The two scientists of received
earliest credit for inventing electronic digital computers were Dr. John W. Mauchly, who died in
1980, and J. Prosper Eckert, who died on June 3. They developed Eniac to compute artillery
trajectories and were later honored by President Lyndon B. Johnson as co-inventors of the
modern computer.

Fame eluded Dr. Atanasoff until Honeywell, a computer maker, successfully sued to cancel
Eniac's patent. In 1990, President Geroge Bush presented the National Medal of Technology to
Dr. Atanasoff for his early work in computers.

John Vincent Atanasoff was born in 1903 in Hamilton, N.Y., and received a bachelor's degree in
electrical engineering from the University of Florida in 1925. In 1926, he received a master's
degree in mathematics from Iowa State College, where he was teaching. He earned a doctorate in
physics from the University of Wisconsin in 1930.

He left Iowa state in 1941 and joined the staff of the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in Washington,
and in 1946 he participated in atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll. In 1952, he established the
Ordnance Engineering Company, which he later sold to the Aerojet Engineering Corporation.

He retired from Aerojet Engineering in 1961 but continued to work on computers. He developed
a phonetic alphabet for computers and in 1981 was awarded the Computer Pioneer Medal from
the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.

Dr. Atanasoff's first marriage, to Laura Meeks Atanasoff, ended in divorce. He is survived by his
second wife, Alice Crosby Atanasoff; two daughters, Elsie A. Whistler of Rockville, Md., and
Joanne A. Gathers of Misson Viejo, Calif.; a son, John V. 3rd, of Boulder, Colo., and 10
grandchildren.