John Vincent Atanasoff was born on 4 October 1903 a few miles west of Hamilton, New York. His father was a Bulgarian immigrant named Ivan Atanasov. His last name was changed to Atanasoff by immigration officials at Ellis Island when he arrived with an uncle in 1889, and later on, his first name was changed to John.
His mother was Iva Lucena Purdy, a mathematics schoolteacher. The couple had nine children (one of whom died): John, Ethelyn, Margaret, Theodore, Avis, Raymond, Melva, Irving. After John Vincent’s birth, his father accepted an electrical engineering position is Osteen, Florida, and subsequently, in Brewster, Florida. It was here that JV 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 JV, as a 9-year-old boy found and corrected faulty electric wiring in a back-porch light.
His grade school years were very normal. JV was a good student and had a youthful interest in sports, specially baseball. This interest in baseball faded when his father purchased a new Dietzgen slide rule to help him at his job; JV became totally fascinated with it. He carefully read the instructions, and was amazed that he could get correct answers. His father soon discovered that he didn’t have an immediate need for the slide rule, and it was soon forgotten by everyone except young John Vincent.
He soon became interested in the mathematical principles behind the operation of the slide rule and the study of logarithms; this 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.
When John Vincent was to enter high school, the family moved to a farm in Old Chicora, Florida. He completed the Mulberry High School course in two years, excelling in science and mathematics. He had, by then, decided he wanted to be a theoretic physicist. In 1921, he entered the University of Florida in Gainesville. Since the university did not offer a degree in theoretic physics, he started taking electrical engineering courses. While taking these courses, he became interested in electronics and continued onto higher mathematics. He graduated from the University of Florida in 1925 with a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering. He had a straight “A” academic average. Even though he had many offers of teaching fellowships, including one from Harvard, he accepted the one from Iowa State College, because it was the first one he received and because of the institution’s fine reputation in engineering and sciences.
So it was, that one day in the summer of 1925 the 22-year-old boarded the train that took him to Ames, Iowa, home of Iowa State College. He was ready to make his mark in the world of science. From September to November he was busy working on his master’s degree and teaching two undergraduate mathematics classes. Even though his social life was minimal due to his busy schedule, he was familiar with one campus organization, the Dixie Club, a club organized for southern students away from home. One evening, he decided to drop by the club to see what was going on. There he met Lura Meeks, a beautiful, brown-haired, blue-eyed 25-year-old home economics major from Oklahoma. This chance meeting led to another date, and then another. Soon they were best friends, seeking each other’s company.
In June 1926, John received his master’s degree in mathematics from Iowa State College, and a few days later, he married Lura. Iowa State had hired him to teach mathematics; Lura had not yet completed the work for her degree in home economics, and she had signed a contract to teach school during the 1926–1927 school year in Montana so she could save enough money to complete the year she needed for that degree. Midway through the school year, she decided to break her teaching contract to return to Ames to be with her husband. A little over a year later, their oldest daughter Elsie, was born. When Elsie was one, the family moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where John had been accepted as a doctoral candidate. Two other children, Joanne and John, were later born to the couple. The work on his doctoral thesis, “The Dielectric Constant of Helium,” gave Atanasoff his first experience in serious computing. He spent hours on a Monroe calculator, one of the most advanced calculating machines of the time. During the hard weeks of calculations to complete his thesis Atanasoff acquired an interest in developing a better and faster computing machine. After receiving his Ph.D. in theoretical physics in July 1930, he returned to Iowa State College with a determination to try to create a faster, better computing machine.
In the fall of 1930 he became a member of the Iowa State College faculty as assistant professor in mathematics and physics. With his academic background, Atanasoff felt he was well equipped to try to figure out how to develop a way of doing the complicated math problems he had encounted during his doctoral thesis, in a faster, more efficient way. During the period that he was doing experiments with vacuum tubes and radio, and examining the field of electronics, he was promoted to associate professor of both mathematics and physics and moved from Beardshear Hall to the Physics Building.
After examining many mathematical devices available at the time, Atanasoff concluded that they fell into two classes — analog and digital. Since the term “digital” was not used until much later, Atanasoff contrasted the analog devices to what he called “computing machines proper.” In 1936 he engaged in his last effort to construct a small analog calculator. With Glen Murphy, then an atomic physicist at Iowa State College, he built the “Laplaciometer,” a small analog calculator. It was used for analyzing the geometry of surfaces. Atanasoff regarded this machine as having the same flaws as other analog devices, where accuracy was dependent upon the performance of other parts of the machine.
The obsession of finding a solution to the computer problem had built to a frenzy in the winter months of 1937. One night, frustrated after many discouraging events, he got into his car and started driving without destination. Two hundred miles later, he pulled onto a roadhouse in the state of Illinois. Here, he had a drink of bourbon and continued thinking about the creation of the machine. No longer nervous and tense, he realized that this thoughts were coming together clearly. He began generating ideas on how to build this computer! After receiving a grant of $650 from Iowa State College in March 1939, Atanasoff was ready to embark in this exciting adventure. To help him accomplish his goal, he hired a particularly bright electrical engineering student, Clifford E. Berry. From 1939 until 1941they worked at developing and improving the ABC, Atanasoff-Berry Computer, as it was later named. When World War II started on 7 December 1941, the work on the computer came to a halt. Although Iowa State College had hired a Chicago patent lawyer, Richard R. Trexler, the patenting of the ABC was never completed.
In September of 1939, Atanasoff left Ames, Iowa and Iowa State on leave for a defense-related position at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in Washington, D.C. (Clifford Berry had accepted a defense-related job in California).
He thought he would spend a few months, or at most, a few years, in government and then return to Iowa State College to, hopefully, become a department head. Lura and their three children remained in Ames, but he made frequent trips home to see his family.
He had become Chief of the Acoustics Division at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory, a position that was paying him a salary well above the $10,000 cap on government salaries at the time. He was in charge of developing a computer for the United States Navy. At the same time, he became involved in the first atomic test in the Pacific, a project that he liked very much.
In 1948, on one of his return visits to Ames, he was surprised and disappointed to learn that the Atanasoff-Berry Computer had been removed from the Physics Building and dismantled. Neither he nor Clifford Berry had been notified that the computer was going to be destroyed. Only a few parts of the computer were saved.
The long separation from his family was beginning to take its toll. He and Lura had drifted apart. In 1949 they were divorced and Lura moved with the children to Denver, Colorado. In the same year, John Atanasoff married Alice Crosby, an Iowan who had also gone to Washington to work during the war years.
In 1949, he became chief scientist for the Army Field Forces in Fort Monroe, Virginia. After one year, he returned to Washington as director of the Navy Fuse Program at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory. He stayed in that position until late 1951. In 1952 he established The Ordnance Engineering Corporation, a research and engineering company in Rockville, Maryland, with his old friend and student, David Beecher. The company was sold to Aerojet General Corporation in 1957, and he became Manager of its Atlantic Division from 1957-1959 and Vice President from 1959-1961. In 1961 he retired. In 1974, JV returned to Iowa State University (the name changed to “university” in 1959) to be guest of honor and grand marshall for the largest student-run celebration in the nation: Veisha. The acronym stands for the first letters of study at the university: Veterinary Medicine, Engineering, Industrial Science, Home Economics, and Agriculture. The festival usually attracts more than 250,000 people. He attended with his wife Alice and two of his children: Joanne and John and their respective families. Elsie was in Indonesia with her husband and was unable to attend.
The vice president and director of information and public affairs for ISU, Carl Hamilton, started the wheels moving to create a film story on the construction of the Atanasoff-Berry Computer. The film “From One John Vincent Atanasoff” was completed in 1981. On 21 October 1983 (tenth anniversary of Judge Larson’s historic decision that Iowa State was the site of the construction of the first electronic digital computer and that the ENIAC had been “derived” from the ABC), the film was released and during the celebration, held at the ISU campus, JV was given a Distinguished Achievement Citation by the Iowa State University Alumni Association. Cliff Berry’s widow, Jean Berry, and his mother, Mrs. Grace Berry, were recognized as relatives of the co-inventor of the ABC.
After a long illness, Atanasoff died of a stroke on 15 June 1995 at his home in Maryland.
1984 Computer Pioneer Award
“For the first electronic computer with serial memory.”
Learn more about the Computer Pioneer Award