Obituary: John Atanasoff

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The Independent Online
John Vincent Atanasoff, scientist and engineer: born Hamilton, New York 4 October 1903; instructor in mathematics and physics, Iowa State university 1930-42; scientist, Naval Ordnance Laboratory 1942-52; founder, Ordnance Engineering Corp 1952; founder, Cybernetics Inc 1961; died 15 June 1995.

In October 1973 John Atanasoff, an American scientist and engineer, was plucked from obscurity and declared by a US court to be the true inventor of the electronic digital computer. This extraordinary judgment was the outcome of one of the most protracted patent trials of recent times, involving two giant computer companies, Honeywell and Sperry Rand.

In 1950, the office-machine conglomerate Remington Rand (later Sperry Rand) had entered the computer age by taking over a foundering computer start-up, the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation. The purchase price included a patent for an electronic computer known as the Eniac, developed by John Presper Eckert and John W. Mauchly at the University of Pennsylvania during the Second World War. As the computer industry grew in importance, the value of the intellectual property represented by the Eniac became obvious to Sperry Rand. In 1967 the firm decided to sue a competitor, Honeywell, for patent infringement and backdated royalties.

In preparing their defence, Honeywell lawyers discovered that an earlier electronic computer, the Atanasoff-Berry Computer (ABC), had been developed in Iowa State University during 1937-42 by a mathematics and physics instructor, John Atanasoff, and a graduate student, Clifford Berry. Not only did this computer predate the Eniac, but Mauchly, one of its inventors, had visited Atanasoff in 1941 and spent several days examining and discussing the ABC. With the outbreak of war, while Mauchly went on to build the Eniac, Atanasoff abandoned computer research to become chief of the acoustics division of the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in Washington. He subsequently developed a successful business career in engineering, unconnected with computing, which included the founding of two companies.

The trial of Honeywell Inc vs Sperry Rand Corp started on 1 June 1971. Evidence was heard from 79 witnesses over 135 days, and some 30,000 documents were entered in evidence. At the end of the trial, Judge Earl R. Larson found that as a result of the visit paid on Atanasoff in 1941, "Mauchly derived from the ABC 'the invention of the automatic electronic digital computer' claimed in the Eniac patent", and the Sperry Rand suit was dismissed.

After Larson's sensational verdict, Atanasoff, at the age of 70, found himself feted as "the forgotten father of the computer". Two full-length books were written about him and his computer, and he was the subject of dozens of newspaper and scholarly articles. He was awarded honorary degrees by his old universities, and Iowa State University inevitably made great capital from being the birthplace of the electronic computer.

The Larson verdict, however, tarnished the reputations of Eckert and Mauchly. They maintained throughout the trial, and to the end of their days, that they learnt nothing of importance from the ABC computer. Moreover, while the original ABC had been a fragile prototype incapable of serious use which vanished into oblivion, Eckert and Mauchly's Eniac was a monumental engineering achievement, containing 20,000 electronic tubes, that gave 15 years of service, and ushered in the computer age. Atanasoff deserved his belated recognition, and a footnote in computer history, but his achievements were unquestionably of a lower order.