Who Invented the Computer? John Atanasoff and ABC

Who Invented the Computer? This is the eighth installment in our ongoing series.


The Atanasoff Berry Computer (ABC) revolutioned the industry.

The history of computers, or of anything for that matter, is fascinating — filled with stops and starts, excitement, frustration, innovation, and a whole lot of standing-on-the-shoulders-of-giants who went before. One often less-appreciated influence on the history of something is the practice of law. Such is the case of the Atanasoff–Berry computer (ABC).


ABC (the photo on this page is of a faithfully re-created replica, more about which later on) was an automatic electronic digital desktop computer built originally at Iowa State College (now Iowa State University) by physics professor John Atanasoff and faithful aide-de-camp graduate student Clifford Berry.


As a professor, Atanasoff was frustrated by the length of time it took students to solve complex linear algebraic equations utilizing existing calculating devices. He was also a really smart guy who liked to tinker with concepts and mechanical things. One evening in 1937, while sitting in a roadhouse throwing down a few adult beverages, Atanasoff eventually noodled together his concept for the ABC.


No one knows whether he shouted "Eureka!" about his discovery, or bought the house a celebratory round, but he did hit upon some heretofore unrealized approaches to operating a computer. The groundbreaking ideas he would incorporate into ABC were:

  • A binary system of arithmetic
  • Separate memory and computing functions
  • Parallel processing
  • Electronic circuits for logical addition and subtraction
  • Electronic amplifiers as on/off switches: 1s and 0s (The approach computers use today)

The Absent-Minded Professor


Racing back to the college (presumably not while under the influence) Atanasoff asked administration for a grant of $650 to build his machine and hire Berry. He got his grant and, in short order, constructed a prototype. Impressed with what they saw, administrators gave him more money to build a larger model which he successfully demonstrated in 1942.


ABC weighed in at a hefty 700 pounds and was a big leap forward for solving pesky linear equations. At that time, a human using a Monroe calculator — the best tool then available — was considered "pretty good" mathematically if they could compute an equation with eight unknowns in approximately eight hours. ABC was much faster, zipping through equations containing up to 29 unknowns in record time.


Sadly for the development of computers, World War II was on and the U.S. Navy tapped Atanasoff to work at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in Washington, D.C. In the rush to support the War effort, Iowa State College forgot to file a patent on ABC.


ABC lay unused and gathering dust in a basement on Iowa State's campus until 1946, when it was cannibalized for parts as more powerful computing devices like ENIAC became de rigueur. ABC was seemingly gone and forgotten until 28 years later when it assumed its place in the pantheon of computer milestones by invalidating the original ENIAC patent — and thereby opening up the field of computer development for dozens of other companies.


Of Processors and Patents


Originally a top-secret wartime project, the digital computing device ENIAC was unveiled to the public on Feb. 15, 1946. Shortly thereafter, ENIAC's creators, J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly, filed an application for a patent on their design. In true federal government fashion, the patent office didn't get around to granting the patent to Eckert and Mauchly until 1964 — 17 years after they applied for it.


While waiting for the patent, Eckert and Mauchly formed a business to develop commercially viable computers. Unfortunately, their computers weren't commercially viable, and the company was soon on the verge of bankruptcy.


Eckert and Mauchly sold their business to Remington Rand, Inc., a major manufacturer of business machines. As part of the sale, Eckert and Mauchly continued working for Rand, who, in 1955, merged with the Sperry Corporation forming Sperry Rand, a major military contractor and developer of computers in its own right.


Once ENIAC's patent was granted to Eckert and Mauchly in 1964, Sperry Rand's lawyers notified all existing computer companies to cease production as they were in violation of the patent. The nascent computer industry was appalled, especially as Sperry Rand demanded large annual payments for licensing agreements.


Honeywell's Hubris?


By 1965, most small competitors — and a few large ones, like IBM — had agreed to terms with Sperry Rand. Not everyone, however, was willing to play ball: Honeywell and Control Data Corporation (Honeywell) refused. Sperry Rand immediately sued in federal court to enforce the patent and Honeywell countersued, asserting the patent was fraudulent.


Both companies rushed to file their respective suits, each seeking to have its case adjudicated in a different district: Sperry Rand wanted the case tried in Washington, D.C., a district they felt more favorable to the rights of patent holders. Honeywell's lawyers wanted Minneapolis, Minn., where Honeywell just happened to be the state's largest employer.


Surprisingly, lawyers for both companies filed their suits on the same day, May 26, 1967. In the interest of brevity and convenience, D.C. Circuit Chief John Sirca combined both suits into one, Honeywell, Inc. v. Sperry Rand Corp. In a preliminary ruling, Sirca also held that the trial would take place in Minneapolis, because Honeywell "had won the race to file," having done so minutes earlier than Sperry Rand.


A Whale of a (Judicial) Tale


The Atanasoff Berry Computer (ABC) revolutioned the industry.

Honeywell v. Sperry Rand was a fascinating and convoluted case. It didn't officially start until June 1971 and lasted 135 days. Claims, counterclaims and oral arguments produced so much documentation that to study the proceedings is to gain a comprehensive history of the computer industry up to that time. The case produced more than 50,000 pages of trial transcript, with attorneys for both sides entering more than 36,000 documents into evidence.


Honeywell, and also the entire computer industry, would eventually win based largely on the testimony and evidence by (wait for it) forgotten physics professor John Atanasoff. Atanasoff showed that, in 1941, John Mauchly visited him at Iowa State where they viewed and discussed ABC's operations and concepts.


Furthermore, during the War, Mauchly had occasionally visited Atanasoff in Washington, D.C., where the two colleagues had continued discussing ABC. Sadly for Eckert and Mauchly, they had failed to disclose these visits in their patent application.


On Oct. 19, 1973, Judge Earl R. Larson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota ruled that the patent was unenforceable because the ideas behind ENIAC were derived from Atanasoff. In his words, "Eckert and Mauchly did not themselves first invent the automatic electronic digital computer, but instead derived that subject matter from one Dr. John Vincent Atanasoff."


Justice Is Served


At the time of the ruling, patents were good for 18 years from the date of issuance. Had Sperry Rand's patent been enforceable, they would have had the ability to control and even stifle the computer industry's growth and development of new products through 1982.


Thus, Larson's ruling was a tremendous win for Atanasoff, the computer industry, and, by extension, the rest of the modern world. Companies and individuals became free to push the envelope of computer development without fear of reprisal.



Ironically, the momentousness of Honeywell v. Sperry Rand was overshadowed by an ongoing political scandal dubbed "Watergate," particularly the so called "Saturday Night Massacre" at the Department of Justice the day after Larson's ruling: Oct. 20, 1973.


Over the ensuing decades, critics of Atanasoff and ABC continued to claim that the device was never actually completed and did not work — and that therefore Judge Larson's ruling was wrong. Such claims were put to rest in 1995. That's when a team of Iowa State University professors and scientists from Ames Laboratory, using only tools and electronics from the ABC era — including the likes of vacuum tubes, brushes, and card punches — set out to create an authentic, full-size replica of ABC.


Relying solely on Atanasoff's original papers, photographs, and the memories of individuals who had assisted him, the team pressed forward, eventually taking three years to construct the historic device. When they powered ABC up, it worked. Case closed.


Would you like more insight into the history of hacking? Check out Calvin's other articles about historical hackery:
About the Author
Calvin Harper

Calvin Harper is a writer, editor, and publisher who has covered a variety of topics across more than two decades in media. Calvin is a former GoCertify associate editor.