On the Shoulders of Giants - Part 1 - John Atanasoff

On the Shoulders of Giants - Part 1 - John Atanasoff

    We are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.

    If you have not done so yet I strongly recommend reading part 0 of the "On the Shoulders of Giants" series here.

    Being a Bulgarian, I decided to dedicate the second part of the series to John Atanasoff. In Bulgaria he is known as the creator of the computer. I want to make it clear that I do not think that he was the creator of the computer. The computer did not have a single creator so no giant can bear this title alone. John Atanasoff however is certainly one of the giants, who carried on their shoulders the machine we call computer during the times when it was really heavy. In his case, it was 320 kg. One way or another, shedding light on his work should be interesting even if you are one of the people who choose to believe that this particular giant invented the computer on his own.

    John Vincent Atanasoff was the son of the Bulgarian emigrant and electric engineer Ivan Atanasoff and mathematics teacher Iva Purdy. Born in 1903, John grew up in Florida, graduated the University of Florida with straight A's and got a degree in science and electrical engineering. He then continued his education in Iowa State College, got a Master's degree in mathematics in 1926 and earned a Ph.D. in theoretical physics in 1930.

    Apparently work in physics at the time required solving many simultaneous linear equations because Atanasoff was not the only one who started looking for a way to automate the process. In 1936 he invented an analog calculator but soon after that he started looking for a digital solution because he was not content with its accuracy. In the winter of 1937 he was on a long journey when he was enlightened with the design of his greatest invention – the Atanasoff–Berry Computer (ABC). Working with his student Clifford Berry he managed to deliver a prototype with the remarkably modest budget of $650. The prototype got him more funding - $5000 to complete the project. Although the value of the American dollar was much greater at the time than it is now the money were not comparable to what other giants got. For example ENIAC cost $500 000. However everyone knows that the size of the giant does not depend on the funding.

    The most important innovations that ABC brought along were:

    1. Using binary instead of decimal numbers.
    2. Dealing away with mechanical parts. ABC used only electronic parts for calculations.
    3. Separating computations and data – one of the fundamental principles of the von Neumann architecture, which modern computers implement.

    Whether that makes ABC the first computer is debatable and depends on your definition of "computer". ABC was not Turing complete. The only thing it could do was solve systems of linear equations. So if your definition involves Turing-completeness like mine then ABC was not the first computer. Of course ABC was not the first device that could carry calculations. There have been such devices since the slide rule. One possible definition by which ABC is the first computer is – "The first device that carried computations by means of pure electronics". Lets take a look at this table of the first computers I shamelessly stole from Wikipedia (like most of this article):

Name First operational Numeral system Computing mechanism Programmable Turing Complete
Zuse Z3 (Germany) 1941 Binary Electro-mechanical Yes Yes
ABC (US) 1942 Binary Electronic No No
Colossus Mark 1 (UK) 1944 Binary Electronic Yes No
ENIAC (US) 1946 Decimal Electronic Yes Yes
Manchester Small-Scale Experimental Machine (UK) 1948 Binary Electronic Yes Yes

    As we can see the first Turing complete machine was Z3. However Z3 was a German machine and due to the fact that Germany lost WW II its influence was relatively small. Also, Z3 and the other computers were developed independently. In fact even the English and American machines were developed relatively independently. So why do people claim that ABC was the first computer?

    In 1940 Atanasoff met a giant known by the name of John Mauchly and told him about the ABC project. In 1941 Mauchly visited Atanasoff and they discussed thoroughly the design of the ABC. In 1942 Atanasoff had to leave to work on a military scientific assignment. The ABC patent application was left to the Iowa State College administration. However administration is full of insignificant dwarfs who cannot recognize how giant an invention is because they are not able to see at great distances. The same way we are not able to see how big the Earth is these dwarfs did not see the importance of the ABC patent and they never filed it. In 1943 Mauchly visited Atanasoff many times to discuss computing work but did not mention that he was now working on a computer project himself until 1944. The computer Mauchly was working on was the famous ENIAC.

    ENIAC was patented as the first electronic computer. For years it was officially the first computer and is still listed in many books as such. The ENIAC patent was sold to a company named Sperry Rand. In 1954 IBM were about to challenge the ENIAC patent in court with the help of Atanasoff but they entered a patent agreement with Sperry Rand. Fast forward in the future of 1967 a company by the name of Honeywell decided to challenge the patent. What followed was The Battle for the Computer. This was one of the longest and most expensive trials of the time. Many giants were summoned as witnesses and many machines were shown. In 1973 the trial ended and ABC was officially declared a prior art. The electronic computer became an invention that is in the public domain so now everyone is free to build one. Note that prior art means only that the ENIAC patent is invalid and not that the example is the only prior art or that it is the first prior art. Z3 could have been declared prior art as well as many of the other machines. The reason why ABC was put forward in this trial is best summarized in the conclusion of the court:

    "Eckert and Mauchly did not themselves invent the automatic electronic computer, but instead derived that subject matter from one Dr. John Vincent Atanasoff."

    ENIAC was inspired by ABC. The giants Eckert and Mauchly were standing on the shoulders of a greater giant – Dr. John Atanasoff.

    In case you wonder what happened with the ABC, it was disassembled and most of its parts were lost. In 1997 a working replica was built, which can be seen in the Iowa State University. The replica cost $350 000 (remember that Atanasoff and Berry built ABC with a budget of $5000).

    In 1945 one of the greatest of all giants namely John von Neumann proposed a computer project for the military and Atanasoff was put in charge. Unfortunately he was reassigned to design acoustic systems for monitoring atomic bomb tests which was a project of higher priority, and the computer project was never finished.

    Unlike the previous tale this one has a happy ending. Atanasoff was the founder of two companies over the years, and after the result of the Honeywell vs Sperry Rand trial, he received many awards including the Order of the People's Republic of Bulgaria, First Class in 1985. At the time this award was not easily given to Americans but obviously the Bulgarian government considered him a Bulgarian. Many awards, schools and streets are named after him, mainly in Bulgaria. Some of them while he was still alive. He died in 1995 at the age of 91.

Tags:   english giants tech 
Posted by:   Stilgar
22:51 27.05.2009


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Posted by   Guest (Unregistered)   on   20:41 04.06.2009

A very fine article indeed! However I'd propose to expand this wonderful series with notable giants found as well in fairy tales, fantasy novels and so forth! There are numerous giant persons that have certainly contributed to the development of our culture, science and society.

Posted by   Ghost (Unregistered)   on   18:04 09.06.2009

Your writing is okay man, but it definitely needs more cowbell!

Posted by   Guest (Unregistered)   on   13:31 10.06.2009

The Russian giants - the biggest giants in the world!

Posted by   Fidel Dahan (Unregistered)   on   19:57 16.06.2009

cool article

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