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Neal Stephenson


John Vincent Atanasof (1903-1995)
Born in 1903 in Hamilton, New York John Vincent Atanasoff displayed a great interest in mathematics from an early age. His father was a Bulgarian immigrant named Ivan Atanasov who like many immigrants had his name misspelled by immigration officials at Ellis Island and so he became Atanasoff. John Vincent Atanasoff's mother was a mathematics teacher named Iva Lucena Purdy, who gave birth to nine children including John. The family moved to Brewster, Florida where John's father had found a job as an Electrical Engineer and it was here that John completed grade school and started his lifelong interest in mathematics and electricity. John read with the help of his mother, A College Algebra, by J.M. Taylor. This book included a beginning study on differential calculus and also had a chapter on infinite series and how to calculate logarithms, advanced subjects for a boy of his age.

In the later years of his childhood his family moved to Old Chicora, Florida. He studied at Mulberry High School gaining straight A's in his science and math courses and graduating in two years. From 1921-1925 John Vincent Atanasoff attended the University of Florida gaining a BSc in electrical engineering.

Having graduated he went to Iowa State College to pursue his masters degree and make his mark in the world of science. It was at Iowa State that through a chance meeting he met the woman who was to become his wife. Lura Meeks was a beautiful, brown-haired economics major from Oklahoma, they began to date and soon became best friends. They married shortly after he gained his masters degree in 1926.

Having gained his masters he moved again, this time to the University of Wisconsin to study fro a doctorate in theoretic physics. In 1930 Atanasoff received his Ph.D. and returned to Iowa State College to take up the post of assistant professor in mathematics and physics.

Atanasoff was interested in performing mathematical computations faster but found the analog computational devices of the time were slow and limited. He was promoted to associate professor and whilst sitting in a tavern the idea of an electronic digital computer came to him.

Having worked on the project for some time he then decided he needed an assistant, and a colleague Professor Anderson suggested a graduate student named Clifford Berry. The two men were very similar and got along almost immediately, and with two minds working on the project it progressed at great speed. By December 1939 they had a working prototype of what became known as the Atanasoff-Berry Computer. They received a grant for $850 from the Iowa State College Research Council in order to construct a full-scale machine.

The start of World War II interfered with the project and somehow their patent application went awry and they never received a patent for the Electronic Digital Computer. The ENIAC built by Mauchly and Eckert in 1946 was patented and was assumed by many to have been the first Electronic Digital Computer. But Atanasoff finally got the recognition he deserved in 1972 following a lengthy court trial where it was ruled that the design of ENIAC had been derived from the work of Atanasoff and Berry and their computer.

In 1942 Atanasoff joined the war effort and became the Chief of the Acoustics Section of the U.S. Naval Ordnance Laboratory. In 1945 Atanasoff received the U.S. Navy Distinguished Service Award (Navy's highest honor awarded to civilians) for his work during the war.

Following the war Atanasoff became a successful businessman as founder and president of The Ordnance Engineering Corporation and president of Cybernetics Incorporated. In addition to his own businesses he was a consultant to other companies including Honeywell and the Control Data Corporation.

John Vincent Atanasoff died at the age of 91 in 1995 at his home in Monrovia, Maryland.

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