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If you are reading this, you probably know how to use a computer. But have you ever wondered how this indispensable twentieth century creation appeared? It's all John Vincent Atanasoff's fault. Read on (and take notes) to discover how, and perhaps you will be able to come up with your own brilliant idea that will change the world!

If you want to create your own incredible technological invention, you might think that studying computer sciences and mathematics is your best shot at success. However, following in John Atanasoff's footsteps could be much more fun. After all, there is always something captivating about genius physicists. It may be the friendly smile or the unruly hair or simply the fact that they have changed our perception of life. Read on to discover how Atanasoff, a native Bulgarian, came around to fathering the computer.

Be Unusual

John Atanasoff was an exceptional child. Born to Bulgarian parents in 1903 and raised in the US, he developed an early interest in mathematics and reputedly skipped baseball to solve math problems. His passion for mathematics brought him a special toy. At nine years old, he used to work with... a slide rule. No, I'm not joking and no, he wasn't using it as a gun. So, in order to become a famous inventor, find an unusual toy. As far as I'm aware no one has tried playing with a protractor yet. Atanasoff's father was an engineer and taught him how to use the slide rule, while his mother, a mathematician, showed him different counting systems. Through the slide rule the young genius discovered trigonometric functions. As history has shown, his encounter with the binary system proved fruitful in his later work.

Take everything as a challenge

BIG-ABC-front
Photo: Ames Laboratory (PD)
A replica of the ABC computer, completed in 1941. A handy device indeed!

You won't be surprised to hear that John Atanasoff aced both his maths and science at high school and university. While writing his doctoral thesis, he realised the shortcomings of the calculator and made up his mind to improve it. So, the next time the microwave breaks down, don't run to get a new one, but think about how you could mend and improve it. Atanasoff saw problems as challenges, and his persistence brought him success.

After graduating in electrical engineering, he continued with mathematics and physics and became a professor of theoretical physics at Iowa State College. It was during his teaching there that the idea of the computer came to life. He refined the concept over a glass of bourbon and water, as the legend goes. Perhaps he also knew his biology, since water is of vital importance for the functioning of the brain. It is, however, not so great for a computer. John Atanasoff's invention doesn't take a glass of water very favourably, as anyone who has spilt it over the keyboard would know.

Realise the importance of teamwork

In developing the computer, Atanasoff wanted to focus on improving speed and performance. In order to put his ideas to practice, he recruited Clifford Berry, a graduate student who shared his interests. The two scientists worked on improving the calculator, thus turning it into a highly efficient prototype of a computer. It was in December 1939 in the basement of the Physics department of Iowa State University that the first computer was born. It didn't look quite like what we would envision when we say "computer," but it was one. The first electronic digital computer was the size of a desk. Atanasoff and Berry worked on it from 1937 until 1942 and it was only WWII that made them abandon it for a while. To commemorate their successful work, they named the prototype ABC or Atanasoff-Berry Computer.

John.atanasoff
Photo: Nickolay Angelow (CC BY-NC-SA 2.5)
The monument honouring John Atanasoff in Sofia, Bulgaria

Be practical

The ABC was solely devised to solve mathematical problems, yet it had an immense effect on the world. The modernisation of the ordinary calculator led to such a technological revolution that now life is unthinkable without a computer of some sort. It is so only because John Atanasoff wanted a better calculating machine to help him work out difficult scientific problems. The computer wasn't the only invention to which Atanasoff devoted his time. It is a curious and little known fact that he also planned to construct a simplified form of the English language, easy to learn and use. He even wanted one of his grandchildren to learn "computerese," the new universal language as he imagined it. Although this innovation did not gain popularity, it is certainly notable that as an engineer, he made the parallel between language and mathematics.

"Collect 'em all"

It was only years after the computer was invented that Atanasoff's work began to be acknowledged. After a lengthy patent trial, he finally received recognition. Atanasoff became a foreign member of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and was presented with the highest national order in Bulgaria. His list of awards could also boast honorary doctoral degrees, gold medals, and even an asteroid named after him.

Since his death in 1995, Bulgaria has tried to keep his memory alive and nowadays it is not uncommon to live on 'John Atanasoff' street and study at 'John Atanasoff' high school. The Bulgarian national award for IT and computer science is called... yes you've guessed it, the John Atanasoff Award.

So, the story of John Atanasoff is the story of a man who took an exceptional interest in mathematics, got angry with his calculator's inefficiency, and improved it with a friend in the basement of his department. Whether you want to become a great scientist, or to have your own asteroid and your school named after you, you could do well to spend some time playing with a slide rule or simplifying English. If either of these seems difficult, don't forget that without Atanasoff, the world would be a very different place.

Thumnail photo: PD

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