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Issue No.01 - January-March (2000 vol.22)
pp: 48-61
ABSTRACT
<p>The story of John Atanasoff occupies an unsettled spot in the literature of computing. The material about him ranges from curt dismissals to hagiography. While scholars are getting an ever more accurate picture of Atanasoff's work and his contribution, even the best articles tend to treat him as an aberration, a lone inventor working outside the circle of computing machine researchers. In fact, Atanasoff worked closely with the Iowa State Statistics Laboratory for three years. This laboratory was part of the computing labs the U.S. Department of Agriculture sponsored. The Department of Agriculture had become interested in computing shortly after World War I. Atanasoff's computer, the ABC, was designed to do a time-consuming task for the Statistical Laboratory, the one task that had not been automated with IBM punched card equipment.</p>
CITATION
David Alan Grier, "Agricultural Computing and the Context for John Atanasoff", IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, vol.22, no. 1, pp. 48-61, January-March 2000, doi:10.1109/85.815466
REFERENCES
1. Iowa State College changed its name to Iowa State University in 1959. Because this article is primarily concerned with events that occurred before 1942, the author will use the former name.
2. Founded by Henry Rietz, who also chaired a National Research Council Committee on Statistical Research. H.L. Rietz to W.A. Jessup, 24 April 1918, Rietz File, Iowa University Archives.
3. M.S. Parsons, "Applications in Agricultural Research; Agricultural Economics in General," G.W. Baehne, ed., Practical Applications of the Punched Card Method in Colleges and Universities.New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1935, pp. 357-363.
4. H.T. Davis, Adventures of an Ultra-Crepidarian.San Antonio, Texas: Principia Press, 1962.
5. J.F. Brennan, The IBM Watson Laboratory at Columbia University.New York: IBM Corporation, 1971.
6. A.D. Meacham, "A Central Tabulating Department," in Baehne, op. cit., pp. 166-170.
7. C. Christ, "History of the Cowles Commission, 1932-1952," Economic Theory and Measurement, a Twenty Year Research Report.Chicago: Cowles Commission, 1952, p. 11.
8. For a good example, see interview with John V. Atanasoff, 5 May 1969, Series 1, Record Group 196, Archives Center, Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
9. Clark R. Mullenhoff, Atanasoff: Forgotten Father of the Computer. Iowa State University Press, 1988.
10. J. Beniger, The Control Revolution.Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1986, pp. 6-10.
11. A. Chandler, The Visible Hand.Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1977, p. 242.
12. D.L. Hurt, American Agriculture, a Brief History.Ames, Iowa: Iowa State Univ. Press, 1994, pp. 202, 242.
13. During this period, commodity prices fell 60 percent. Farm production rose 50 percent, while demand increased only 25 percent. G.F. Warren and F.A. Pearson, Prices.New York: John Wiley, 1933, pp. 26-27. See also D. Schwieder, "Agricultural Issues in the Middle West, 1865-1900," L. Ferleger, ed., Agriculture and National Development: Views on the Nineteenth Century. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State Univ. Press, 1990, pp. 97-118
14. Schweider, op. cit., pp. 105-106.
15. Both were established by the Hatch (Agricultural) Act (W.D. Rasmussen and G.L. Baker, Dept. of Agriculture). New York: Praeger, 1972, p. 11. Schwieder, op. cit., p. 108.
16. Chandler, op. cit., pp. 112, 278.
17. Here, the term least-squares analysis will be used to describe a family of techniques that includes regression analysis, analysis of variance, and analysis of covariance. These methods are often distinguished from each other but are examples of the same technique. I use the term least-squares analysis to underscore the connection with similar methods in astronomy and geodesy.
18. S. Stigler, The History of Statistics: The Measurement of Uncertainty Before 1900.Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1986.
19. Ibid. pp. 265-297.
20. D. Grigg, The Transformation of Agriculture in the West.Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1992.
21. Rasmussen and Baker, op. cit., p. 14.
22. W.H. Ebling, "Why Government Entered the Field of Crop Reporting and Forecasting," J. Farm Economics, Vol. 21, No. 4, pp. 718-734, esp. p. 723, Nov. 1939.
23. J. Benedict, "Development of Agricultural Statistics in the Bureau of the Census," J. Farm Economics, Vol. 21, No. 4, pp. 735-760, Nov. 1939.
24. G. Baker, W. Rasmussen, V. Viser, and J. Porter, Century of Service, the First 100 Years of the USDA.Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, p. 41.
25. Schwieder, op. cit., pp. 97, 109.
26. D.L. Winters, Henry Cantwell Wallace as Secretary of Agriculture, 1920-1924.Urbana, Ill.: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1970, pp. 113, 115.
27. Interview with John V. Atanasoff, 24 May 1972, Series 1, Record Group 196, Archives Center, Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
28. Interview with John V. Atanasoff, 24 May 1972.
29. A.M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Coming of the New Deal.Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958.
30. R. Lord, The Wallaces of Iowa.Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1947, pp. 148-150.
31. E.L. Schapsmeier and F.H. Schapsmeier, Henry A. Wallace of Iowa: The Agrarian Years, 1910-1940.Ames, Iowa: Iowa State Univ. Press, 1968, p. 20.
32. Men of American Science, 7th ed. Lancaster, Pa.: Science Press, 1944.
33. Lord, op. cit., pp. 87, 211.
34. Ibid., pp. 131, 154.
35. Isaac Franklin Neff Files, Drake University Archives, Cowles Library.
36. H.A. Wallace, "Who Plays the Part of Joseph?" Wallaces' Practical Farmer,27 Sept. 1912.
37. M. Ezekiel, "Henry A. Wallace, Agricultural Economist," J. Farm Economics, Vol. 48, No. 4, pp. 789-802, Nov. 1966. The Washington Post picked up the story of Wallace's analysis and called his technique "hog-arthyms." Because Wallace attracted such criticism later in life for his liberal causes, outside reports on his scientific work are often mocking or demeaning. As this was written before his work for the Roosevelt administration, the author was probably being humorous.
38. Lord, op. cit., pp. 197-201.
39. M. Ezekiel, op. cit., p. 791.
40. C. Tolley, Report on Tabulating Machines,23 Feb. 1923, Records Relating to the Stat Council, 1922-1926, Division of Farm Management and Costs and Its Predecessors, Entry 132, Records of Bureau of Agricultural Economics, Record Group 83, NARA.
41. "Announcement," Bureau of Agricultural Economics News, Vol. 8, No. 18, May1 1923, Records Relating to Studies, Projects and Surveys, Project Files, 1907-1939, Box 2, Entry 32, Records of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics, Record Group 83, NARA.
42. See Wallace to Sewall Wright, 23 May 1923, Henry A. Wallace Papers, Library of Congress/University of Iowa. Wallace did not know Tolley directly but clearly knew of the work of the statisticians at the Bureau of Agriculture. See Wallace to George Snedecor, 31 Dec. 1960, Henry A. Wallace Papers, Library of Congress/University of Iowa.
43. M. Ezekiel, op. cit., p. 791.
44. The researcher was Sewall Wright, Senior Animal Husbandman. See correspondence between Wright and Wallace beginning 23 May 1923, Henry A. Wallace Papers, Library of Congress/University of Iowa.
45. H.A. Wallace, "What is an Iowa Farm Worth?" Wallaces' Practical Farmer, Jan.4 1924, pp. 3-4.
46. See H.A. Wallace, "Tropical Oils and the American Hog," Wallaces' Practical Farmer, Oct.29 1920; "The Barometer of Corn Belt Prosperity," Wallaces' Practical Farmer, 30 Jan. 1920; "Reducing the 1922 Corn Acreage," Wallaces' Practical Farmer, 25 Nov. 1921; "The Cost of Producing Corn and Oats," Wallaces' Practical Farmer, 8 Dec. 1922; "What is an Iowa Farm Worth?" Wallaces' Practical Farmer, 4 Jan. 1924; "Factors that Make Corn Prices," Wallaces' Practical Farmer, 21 Aug. 1925; "How the Farm Bill Went Through," Wallaces' Practical Farmer, 25 Feb. 1927.
47. Wallace was using least-squares analysis to use several independent quantities (e.g., soil acidity, sunlight, amount of fertilizer, and amount of rain) to predict a single outcome (e.g., yield of corn per acre). To solve a least-squares problem, the statistician needs to find the coefficients that relate the independent variables to the outcome. In 1917, statisticians could do this easily in the simple case when there was only one independent quantity. But the method for two or more independent quantities was cumbersome, time-consuming, and prone to error. See G.U. Yule, Theory of Statistics. London: C. Griffin, 1911.
48. H.A. Wallace and G.W. Snedecor, "Correlation and Machine Calculation," Iowa State College Bull., No. 35, 1925. It should be noted that Wallace rediscovered a method known to geodesists as Doolittle's method, though it was unknown to statisticians at the time. (Wallace to Snedecor, 20 Dec. 1960, Henry A. Wallace Papers, Library of Congress/University of Iowa). See M.H. Doolittle, U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Report, 1898, p. 115.
49. Iowa State College in Ames was only a short ride from Des Moines, where Wallace had his offices. It may have been that most of the correspondence was face to face.
50. Wallace to C.C. Hurd, 21 Feb. 1965, Henry A. Wallace Papers, Library of Congress/University of Iowa. Wallace cites the date as the winter of 1923, but he is contradicted by every other report on the class. See T.A. Bancroft, "Roots of the Iowa State University Statistical Center: 1914-1950," Iowa State J. of Research, Vol. 57, No. 1, Aug. 1982, pp. 3-10 and J. Lush, "Early Statistics at Iowa State University," T.A. Bancroft, ed., Statistical Papers in Honor of George W. Snedecor. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State Univ. Press, 1972, pp. 211-226.
51. See H.A. Wallace and G.W. Snedecor, Machine Calculation and Correlation. Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts Official Publication, Vol. 23, No. 35, Jan.23 1925.
52. See G.W. Snedecor, "Uses of Punched Card Equipment in Mathematics," Amer. Mathematical Monthly, Vol. 35, pp. 161-169, 1928.
53. See "Record for the Osborn Club," Iowa State University Archives.
54. Lush, op. cit.
55. Cf. Iowa State College Bulletin for 1910, which states that the Math Department had six desk calculators for use in astronomy, with the bulletin for 1920, which lists the same number of machines for calculating. Iowa State University Archives.
56. G.W. Snedecor, Algebra.Ames, Iowa, 1916, Snedecor Papers, Iowa State University Archives.
57. Lush, op. cit., p. 220.
58. See introductory paragraphs to Snedecor, op. cit., 1928.
59. Interview with Mary Clem, 27 June 1969, Series 1, Record Group 196, Archives Center, Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
60. Snedecor's enthusiasm is illustrated in his contribution to the Mathematics Department's annual report. The work of the tabulating equipment is described in minute detail, and the vice president for research questioned if the section could be edited. 1927-28 Annual Report for the Mathematics Department, Vice President for Research File, Iowa State University Archives.
61. G.W. Snedecor, op. cit., 1928.
62. See Clem, op. cit. She states that much of the work was done for A.E. Brandt's dissertation.
63. Wallace to Brandt, 15 Oct. 1930, Henry A. Wallace Papers, Library of Congress/University of Iowa.
64. Schapsmeier and Schapsmeier, op. cit., p. 26. Wallace did not clearly frame the project, and it was later mocked by his political enemies. He hoped to find a statistical correlation between the positions of the planets and the weather in Ames, Iowa. See Wallace to Snedecor, 23 May 1931, Henry A. Wallace Papers, Library of Congress/University of Iowa.
65. A.M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Coming of the New Deal.Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958, pp. 40-55.
66. We cannot easily determine if Wallace intervened on behalf of the Iowa State College with the Department of Agriculture. However, he probably did not have to do so, as his lab was by then one of the most comprehensive centers of statistical knowledge in the country (Lush, op. cit.).
67. T.A. Bancroft op. cit., 1966, p. 14. Dedicatory Plaque, George Snedecor Hall, Iowa State University.
68. Iowa State College Budgets for 1930-1931 to 1939-1940, Iowa State University Archives. Before 1938, the university had a series of small contracts with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 1938, the group signed a major contract with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (see T.A. Bancroft, op. cit., 1968).
69. In later years, he could be disdainful of Snedecor and the Iowa State College Statistical Laboratory, though given the tone of such remarks, he is probably defending himself from the claim that his ideas originated with others. See Interview with John Atanasoff, Interview with John V. Atanasoff, Record Group 196, 5 May 1969, Smithsonian Archives Center, p. 42.
70. See P. Huber, Robust Statistics.New York: John Wiley, 1981.
71. Interview with John V. Atanasoff, 18 Feb. 1972, Record Group 193, Smithsonian Archives Center.
72. M. Kline, A History of Mathematical Thought from Ancient to Modern Times.Oxford, England: Oxford Univ. Press, 1972, pp. 1,092-1,094. In 1927, John von Neumann became so interested in the potential of the field as a tool for quantum physicists that he wrote two papers that helped organize the field.
73. Atanasoff, op. cit. (1940), p. 315. See especially paragraph 3.
74. Compare Iowa State Budget, 1931-1932, 1932-1933, Iowa State University Archives. Also, Mary Clem notes that the lab received new equipment at about that time. M. Clem Interview, op. cit.
75. J.V. Atanasoff and A.E. Brandt, "Application of Punched Card Equipment to the Analysis of Complex Spectra," J. Optical Soc. Amer., Vol. 26, No. 2, pp. 83-88, 1936.
76. Atanasoff, op. cit., 1940, pp. 329-330.
77. J.V. Atanasoff, "Solution of Systems of Linear Equations by the Use of Punched Card Equipment," unpublished manuscript, undated, Record Group 196, series 4, Smithsonian Archives Center.
78. J.V. Atanasoff, "Advent of Electronic Digital Computing," Annals of the History of Computing, Vol. 6, No. 3, p. 236, July 1984.
79. Burks and Burks, op. cit., p. 232.
80. Clark R. Mullenhoff, Atanasoff: Forgotten Father of the Computer. Iowa State University Press, 1988.
81. Interview with John V. Atanasoff, 17 Apr. 1972, p. 35, Record Group 193, Smithsonian Archives Center.
82. Men of Science, 11th ed. New York: Browker, 1965.
83. Brandt and Wallace maintained a substantial correspondence about the business. Virtually the entire Wallace-Brandt correspondence between 15 Oct. 1930 and 4 June 1932 concerns this business. See Henry A. Wallace Papers, Library of Congress/University of Iowa, microfilms 3, 4, 5, 6, 58, and 59.
84. See Iowa State College Budget for 1937-1938, Iowa State College Archives, "Statement on Statistics," Statistics 1945 File, Records of the Vice President for Research, Iowa State College, Iowa State College Archives.
85. Iowa State University Budget for 1937-1938, Bancroft, op. cit., p. 15.
86. Iowa State Univ. Bull., 1938-1939.
87. Burks and Burks, op. cit., p. 232.
88. Mollenhoff,op. cit., pp. 31-37.
89. Proc. 16th Conf. Design of Experiments in Army Research Development and Testing, ARO-D Report 71-3, Army Mathematics Steering Committee, G.W. Snedecor Files, Iowa State University Archives.
90. Atanasoff, op. cit., 1984, pp. 257-258.
91. J.V. Atanasoff, "Computing Machine for the Solution of Large Systems of Linear Algebraic Equations," 1940, reprinted in B. Randell, The Origins of Digital Computers.New York: Springer Verlag, 1982, p. 316.
92. H.T. Davis, op. cit.
93. See Iowa State College Statistical Laboratory Annual Reports, 1947-1960, Stat Lab Review (newsletter of the Iowa State College Statistical Laboratory), Vol. 13, No. 11, Sept. 1959; T.A. Bancroft to G.W. Snedecor, 3 Jan. 1962, Correspondence, Papers of George Snedecor, Special Collections of the Iowa State University. Only in 1962 did the university establish a separate computing organization for the entire school. Iowa State Univ. Bull., pp. 63-65, 1962-1963.
94. Perhaps the most influential of these were the Agricultural Master Sample for the Department of Agriculture and the population Master Sample for the Bureau of the Census. Annual Report, Iowa State College Statistical Laboratory, 1944-1945, Iowa State University Archives.
95. M. Clem, op. cit., pp. 34-35.
96. Stat Lab Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, Jan.1 1946, Iowa State University Archives. T.A. Bancroft, op. cit., p. 16.
97. Mary Clem, op. cit., p. 35.
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