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updated: 8/23/2011 11:22 AM

Who made first computer? An Iowa State professor

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  • Graduate student Clifford Berry at a computer.

      Graduate student Clifford Berry at a computer.
    Courtesy of Special Collections/Iowa State Univers

  • The ABC (Atanasoff-Berry computer) built in 1941.

      The ABC (Atanasoff-Berry computer) built in 1941.
    Courtesy of Special Collections/Iowa State Univers

 

You wanted to know

Elise Diaz's fifth-graders from O'Plaine School in Gurnee asked, "Whose idea was it to make the first computer?"

After examining the facts, it took a judge to decide who should be credited with inventing the first computer -- 32 years after the first one was constructed.

Patent holders' questions about identifying the first person to design such an important device led to a lawsuit. The judge's decision named John Atanasoff, an Iowa State assistant professor, as the originator of the first computer, the ABC (Atanasoff-Berry computer) built in 1941.

Born in 1903, Atanasoff was a mathematician and physicist. He wanted to solve high-level math problems that mechanical calculators couldn't complete accurately or efficiently.

The complex equations he used in his doctoral thesis on theoretical physics drove him to design a machine that would tackle the math.

With a grant from Iowa State, Atanasoff hired Clifford Berry, an electrical engineering graduate student, and they built the ABC, which would solve up to 29 linear equations at a time. The monster math decoder weighed 700 pounds and was the size of a desk.

This computer established three important features that future computers would use -- it used a binary system, it contained electronic switches instead of mechanical ones, and it separated the memory from the calculations.

A fellow scientist and aspiring computer designer, John Mauchly, visited Atanasoff to study the ABC. Mauchly later developed the first general purpose computer, the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator).

On Dec. 7, 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into World War II. Atanasoff was called to work at the Naval Ordinance Laboratory as chief of the acoustics division.

In 1948, Atanasoff returned to Iowa State and found the ABC in parts. Lawyers had not followed through on the request to patent the ABC so his place as the inventor of the first computer was undocumented.

Mauchly, however, had patented the ENIAC, and that's where the confusion began about who's computer was officially the first.

For his groundbreaking achievements, Atanasoff was awarded the Computer Pioneer medal from the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers and the National Medal of Technology awarded by President George Bush.

Among other awards were five honorary doctoral degrees and the U.S. Navy's Distinguished Civilian Service award.

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