In Memory of Computer's Inventor

June 24, 1995

John Vincent Atanasoff, who died of a stroke last week at 91, will be remembered as the father of the modern computer. As if that weren't enough to secure the Frederick County resident's place in history, his biography is made all the more intriguing by the fact that for more than 30 years, he was forgotten as the father of the modern computer.

His breakthrough occurred in 1937, when he was a teacher of mathematics and physics at Iowa State University. Having already devised computing machines -- such as an analog calculator that examined the geometry of surfaces -- Dr. Atanasoff sought to create an apparatus that would help graduate students solve complex math problems. With student assistant Clifford Berry, Dr. Atanasoff produced the first machine to separate processing from memory and use the binary number system in electronic computing. It ran with vacuum tubes and punch cards, and could handle problems containing up to 29 variables. The whole project cost $1,000.

But before the professor could file a patent for his invention, World War II intervened. Dr. Atanasoff went to Washington to do physics research for the U.S. Navy. His service in the military, including his participation in the 1946 atomic weapons tests at the Bikini Atoll, continued until 1952.

In the meantime, two University of Pennsylvania scientists were credited with inventing the modern computer while working for the Aberdeen Proving Ground. Not until a 1973 did Dr. Atanasoff get his due, when a federal judge voided a patent on the Penn scientists' machine because it was the obvious offspring of the Atanasoff-Berry prototype.

By all indications, John Atanasoff never sought the accolades that had eluded him for three decades. (Nor did he make a cent off his computer.) He was occupied with his military research, launching a Rockville-based ordnance company in the early 1950s and, after his retirement in 1961, working as a consultant and educating young people about computers. In recent years, scholarly writings, honorary doctorates and professional awards have confirmed his pioneering status. President Bush sealed it in 1990 when he awarded Dr. Atanasoff the National Medal of Technology.

It's only fitting that the man who put regenerative memory into computers should always be remembered for inventing a machine that has changed -- and continues to change -- the world.

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