In the late 1930s, John Atanasoff was still trying to develop ways to facilitate the process of calculating solutions to the
extended systems of linear algebraic equations that were applicable to his research work. He became convinced that the digital
approach offered considerable advantages over the slower and less accurate analog machines. In December of 1939, working
with his graduate student Clifford Berry, John Atanasoff developed and built the prototype of the first electronic digital computer,
which would be fully completed in 1942. This prototype of the first computer included four significant and entirely novel operating
principles in its operation: The binary system, regenerative data storage, logic circuits as elements of a program, and electronic
elements as data carrying media.
"After the prototype had started working, we were convinced we could build a computer capable of calculating whatever we
would like to", wrote Atanasoff. Having demonstrated the viability of the four major principles, the prototype unequivocally opened
the way for all present day computers.
|Clifford Berry with the ABC (1942)
In their history of the ENIAC computer, Alice R. Burks and Arthur W. Burks summarize the Atanasoff achievement as follows:
"He invented a new type of a serial storage module, applicable to digital electronic
computing. He formulated, developed and proved the major principles involved in
electronic circuits for digital computing, principles that included arithmetical operations,
control, transition from one to another number base systems, transfer and storage of
data, and synchronized clocking of the operations. Having applied that data storage and
those principles, he constructed a well-balanced electronic computer with centralized
architecture, including storage, and arithmetically controlled input/output devices. He had
invented the first-ever specialized electronic computer with such a degree of
The ABC computer would have been fully operative by 1943, had the efforts of John Atanasoff and Clifford Berry not been
interrupted by World War II. In September of 1942, Atanasoff was conscripted into the military and was forced to set aside his
work on the computer. He began working at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory (NOL), a research laboratory at the Armed Forces
Ordnance Administration, where, as a theoretical physicist, he was put in charge of testing acoustic mines, depth charges, and
other similar projects. From 1942 to 1966, Atanasoff\'s scientific research centered on the dynamic principles of naval ships.
During this time, he patented more than 30 devices, including the first mine-sweeping unit for blowing up hydrodynamic naval
mines; instruments for detection and recording of high amplitude seismic and sonic waves; a unit computing and recording projectile
trajectory errors in artillery shelling; postal sorting systems; automated systems for parcel post handling; quick search systems
for classified information items; and an electronic quartz clock. Simultaneously, he worked on several developments related to
national defense and naval armament systems, including work on guided missiles.
In 1945 John Atanasoff dedicated the results of his innovative professional work to a number of governmental and industrial
projects. He also established two successful companies and served each simultaneously as chief executive.