John Vincent Atanasoff (1903 - 1995) is a name that astoundingly few people recognize, as he is the inventor of the electronic digital computer, an example of which you are using to access this writing. He developed this at Iowa State in relative obscurity, not bothering to promote the device for the groundbreaker that it was; instead, most people believe incorrectly that the ENIAC was the first computer.

John Atanasoff was born in 1903 in New York to a Bulgarian immigrant and his wife; he was the eldest of nine children. Shortly after John's birth, the family moved to Florida where his father held a job as an electrical engineer. Naturally, this helped young John develop an interest in electricity and he displayed proficiency in electrical engineering as early as age nine, when he rewired a light fixture in the family household.

John's burgeoning interest in electricity and the sciences was aided by his father, who offered John a practical education, along with frequent gifts such as slide rules to encourage this interest. John became more and more interested in mathematics and began to investigate various mathematical topics throughout adolescence and his teenage years. In 1921, he entered the University of Florida at Gainesville, studying electrical engineering.

During his years in Gainesville, John's interest in mathematics and electronics continued, and he studied them quite often. After graduation in 1925 with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering, he accepted a teaching fellowship at Iowa State, mostly due to the university's fine standing in engineering and science. John received his master's degree from Iowa State in 1926 and then went on to acquire a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in theoretical physics in 1930. While studying for his doctorate (on the dielectric constant of helium), he noticed that much of his time was spent doing nearly countless sets of repeated equations, and the idea was hatched in his mind to build a device to automate these calculations.

In 1930, John returned to Iowa State as a professor in mathematics and physics. His earliest research here was promising, involving radio transmissions and uses for vacuum tubes in electronics, which would help provide the underlying basis for his later invention. Eventually, he was able to acquire laboratory space in the bottom of the Physics building at Iowa State, and there he began to build a variety of computing devices.

His earliest success in 1936 was known as the "Laplaciometer," a device designed to help with the calculation of Laplace transforms. Unfortunately, this device fell victim to what Atanasoff saw as the flaw of many other mechanical computing devices of the day: they were only as good as the mechanical components that made them up. Finally, out of frustration in the winter of 1937, he began to drive aimlessly throughout the countryside, and on this trip the connection between his earlier research and his later developments clicked.

Between 1939 and 1941, with the help of graduate student Clifford Berry, Atanasoff built what was known as the ABC, or the Atanasoff-Berry Computer. They achieved success with this device early on, and spent the intervening years spending much of their spare time on the project in the basement of the Physics building at Iowa State. Work ceased with the onset of World War II in 1941; both men went on to defense related positions. As a result, the machine sat in the basement of the building, never patented.

Atanasoff worked for the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in Washington during the war, returning to Ames frequently to visit his family. After the war was over, he was made director of the acoustics division of the laboratory and paid a high salary, so he remained with the job. He returned again in 1948 to Iowa State for a visit, only to find that his computer had been disassembled and thrown away to make space for laboratories for use in the Manhattan Project.

John went on to be named chief scientist for the Army Field Forces in Fort Monroe, Virginia in 1949. After one year, he returned to Washington to direct the Navy Fuse Program at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory. In 1952 he moved on again, establishing the Ordnance Engineering Corporation, a research and engineering company in Rockville, Maryland, which was sold to Aerojet General Corporation in 1957. After the merger, he served in management of the company until his retirement in 1961. He passed on in 1995, leaving behind a legendary legacy in computing.

In 1973, Atanasoff was legally credited for the invention of the electronic digital computer, but the damage was done: most people still believe that the first computer was in fact the ENIAC.

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