One night in the late 1930s, after a frustrating day in the lab, John Vincent Atanasoff drove out to a bar on the Illinois-Iowa border. Brooding over his work, he hit an idea.
He went back and combined the binary number system and electronic switches, with an array of capacitors on a moving drum to serve as memory. This yielded a computing machine that would make his life and the lives of other similarly burdened scientists easier.
It was the very first electronic digital computer, the Atanasoff–Berry Computer (ABC), though it wasn’t programmable or Turing-complete.
The ABC used binary math to solve differential equations. The ABC had no central processing unit (CPU), but relied on vaccuum tubes and other components similar to those used in later electronic computers.
Several of the concepts he pioneered were incorporated into the breakthrough ENIAC computer that evolved into the legendary UNIVAC.
John Mauchly’s construction of ENIAC, the first Turing-complete computer, with J. Presper Eckert in the mid 1940s has has led to controversy over who was the actual inventor of the computer.
This controversy was partially resolved on October 19, 1973, when U.S. District Judge Earl R. Larson overturned the patent of the ENIAC held by Mauchly and Eckert ruling that the ENIAC derived many basic ideas from the Atanasoff Berry Computer. While a legal victory, Atanasoff’s victory was incomplete as the ENIAC, rather than the ABC, is still widely regarded as the first computer.
In 1970, Atanasoff was invited to Bulgaria by the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, so the Bulgarian Government could confer upon him the Cyrille and Methodius Order of Merit First Class. Having always emphasized his Bulgarian roots, he was very proud that Bulgaria was the first country to recognize his work.
In 1981, he received the Computer Pioneer Medal from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Finally, in 1990, President George H. W. Bush awarded Atanasoff the United States National Medal of Technology.