Computer Glory at Last

December 17, 1990

At a White House ceremony recently, President Bush presented a National Medal of Technology to 87-year-old John V. Atanasoff. That name may mean little to most Marylanders, even though it belongs to a Frederick County resident who helped revolutionize the way we live: Dr. Atanasoff invented the electronic digital computer.

In December 1939, while working as an associate professor of physics and mathematics at Iowa State College, Dr. Atanasoff produced a crude operating model of the first known electronic computer. He never patented the invention, which he showed freely to interested visitors. One of those visitors, John Mauchly, later used Dr. Atanasoff's concepts in an electronic computer built in 1946. That machine, constructed for the U.S. Army, went into the record books as the first digital computer, bringing fame and wealth to Dr. Mauchly and a colleague, Presper Eckert, who patented it.

A billion-dollar patent infringement suit in 1973 between Sperry Rand and Honeywell finally established "one Dr. John Vincent Atanasoff" as the inventor of the computer. During testimony at the trial, Dr. Atanasoff recalled that he made the breakthrough over a winter night's drink in an Illinois honky-tonk after being "tormented" earlier in the day by his inability to complete the design of the new-fangled device.

After retiring, Dr. Atanasoff built a modernistic house on a hilltop house near New Market and began developing a universal alphabet that could be used for all languages of the world.

His universal alphabet is nowhere near completion after 45 years of work. But at long last he has deservedly won White House recognition for his computer invention. Says Dr. Atanasoff, "I can always find things around me that don't interest other people."

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