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John Vincent Atanasoff papers

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: RS 13/20/51

Scope and Content

Series I, Biographical records (1930-2011), contains biographical sketches and personnel records, newspaper and printed clippings, photographs and scanned image printouts, certificates, oral history interviews with Atanasoff; material from Clark Mollenhoff's book, "Atanasoff : Forgotten Father of the Computer" (1988), and other published material concerning Atanasoff, awards information, correspondence relating to computer exhibitions and the 1990 trip to Bulgaria, 2 audiotapes, 1 VHS tape, and a film script.



Series 2, Correspondence (1929-1993), contains a wide variety of professional correspondence from colleagues, friends, and students from throughout Atanasoff's career. Correspondents include George Gross, Sam Legvold, Max Munk, Bob Vaile, Jay Woodrow, and Iowa State College (later University). Several folders of 1993 celebratory birthday cards received from Maryland elementary school children are also in this series.



Atanasoff was involved with the Aerojet Corporation in the late 1950s, and their records are contained in Series 3, Business records (1956-1961). Included are memoranda and correspondence concerning company proposals. The proposals include the development of automation systems, bacteriological weapons, and a satellite program.



Series 4, Invention records (1930-1981), contains records relating to Atanasoff's inventions, beginning prior to World War II and extending through to the 1970s. The files contain notes, information, and drawings relating to the following inventions: an electrical clock (1936); cathode-ray tube and low-frequency detection device (World War II-era); electronic chassis (late 1940s); and several inventions relating to his home in Maryland, including the house itself, a hog house, a dryer for vegetables, and a seeder.

Atanasoff's research notes and published materials relating to his career are in Series 5, Research and publications (1926-1986, undated). There are reprint articles, notes for speeches, translations, Iowa State College exam questions and coursework, quantum mechanics notes, portions of a book on underwater acoustics and sound, Naval Ordnance Laboratory project reports, and drafts of "The Advent of Electronic Digital Computing," published in the Annals of the History of Computing in 1983.



A large component of the Atanasoff papers is Series 6, Legal records (1925-1980, undated), which contains depositions, transcripts of proceedings, testimony, correspondence, black and white photographs, published materials, original notes and drawings, and a finding of fact for the case of Honeywell, Inc. v. Sperry-Rand. The materials relate to the development of the ABC Computer, and depositions from Atanasoff, John Mauchly, and patent lawyer, Richard Trexler, and a full-length interview with Atanasoff are included. The correspondents include Cliff Berry, Sam Legvold, Richard Trexler, and Iowa State College (University).



Series 7, Language study records (1965-1980), contains published materials, notes, and correspondence, related to Atanasoff's experimentation and study of the creation of a new alphabet. Atanasoff firmly believed that a digital alphabet should be developed as the current alphabet was too difficult for children to learn.



Series 8, Printed materials (1927-2003), consists of a varying amount of printed material, relating to Atanasoff's research interest. Included are reprint articles and theses of former students and other researchers, and articles and clippings relating to the history of computing.

Dates

  • 1925-2011, undated

Creator

Language of Materials

English

Access Restrictions

Open for research.

Use/Re-use Restrictions

Consult Special Collections and University Archives

Biography/Profile

John Vincent Atanasoff was born in 1903 in New York State. His father was a Bulgarian immigrant named Ivan (John) Atanasov and his mother was Iva Lucena Purdy, a mathematics schoolteacher. The couple had nine children and resided in Brewster, Florida, during John Vincent's childhood. As a young child, Atanasoff was very interested in mathematical principles and studied calculus at the age of 9. He completed high school in two years and in 1921, he entered the University of Florida in Gainesville. He graduated from the University of Florida with a B.S. (1925) in electrical engineering and accepted a teaching position from Iowa State College.



Atanasoff received his master's degree (1926) in mathematics from Iowa State College, and a few days later, he married Lura Meeks. They had three children: Elsie, Joanne and John II. He completed his doctoral thesis, "The Dielectric Constant of Helium," at the University of Wisconsin and received his Ph.D. in theoretical physics in 1930. In the fall of 1930 he became a member of the Iowa State College faculty as assistant professor in mathematics and physics. Atanasoff began developing a computation method for solving complicated math problems in a faster, more efficient way. He was promoted to associate professor (1936) of both mathematics and physics.



Atanasoff continued to struggle with the development of a faster computation system and in 1937 developed basic concepts for his computing machine. After receiving a grant of $650 from Iowa State College in March 1939, Atanasoff hired an electrical engineering student, Clifford E. Berry, to assist him. From 1939 until 1941 they worked at developing and improving the ABC, Atanasoff-Berry Computer, as it was later named. When World War II started on 7 December 1941, the work on the computer came to a halt. Although Iowa State College had hired a Chicago patent lawyer, Richard R. Trexler, the patenting of the ABC was never completed.



In September of 1942 Atanasoff left for a defense-related position at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in Washington, D.C. and became Chief of the Acoustics Division. By 1948 the Atanasoff-Berry Computer had been removed from the Physics Building and dismantled. Neither Atanasoff nor Clifford Berry were ever notified that the computer was going to be destroyed.



In 1949 Atanasoff and his wife Lura were divorced. Lura moved with the children to Denver, Colorado. In the same year, John Atanasoff married Alice Crosby.



In 1949 he became chief scientist for the Army Field Forces and he then returned to Washington as director (1950-1951) of the Navy Fuse Program at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory. In 1952 he established The Ordnance Engineering Corporation, a research and engineering company in Rockville, Maryland, with his friend and former student, David Beecher. The company was sold to Aerojet General Corporation in 1957, and he became Manager of its Atlantic Division from 1957-1959 and Vice President from 1959-1961. In 1961 he retired.



Although the ABC was never patented, it was part of major court case in the 1960s and 1970s. In Honeywell v. Sperry Rand, Sperry Rand was attempting to establish the validity of patent rights they had purchased from J. Presper Eckert and John W. Mauchly. These rights included the Electronic Numerical Integrator (ENIAC) which Eckert and Mauchly had patented in 1964. Honeywell, Inc. was trying to establish that Mauchly had obtained important concepts used in the ENIAC from examination of a device known as the Atanasoff-Berry Computer, during a visit to Iowa State in June, 1941. In his decision (1973), the judge agreed that the concepts used in developing ENIAC were based on Atanasoff's work with the ABC.



Atanasoff received numerous awards and honors including: the U.S. Navy Distinguished Service Award (1945); Order of Cyril and Methodius (1970);Iowa Inventors Hall of Fame (1974); Governor's Science Medal (1985);Holley Medal, American Society of Mechanical Engineers (1985) and the Coors American Ingenuity Award (1986) and the National Medal of Technology (1990).



After a long illness, Atanasoff died of a stroke on 15 June 1995 at his home in Maryland.

Extent

34.16 Linear Feet (60 document boxes, 1 records center carton, 9 oversized boxes, and 2 map case folders )

Arrangement

The collection is organized into eight series:

Series 1, Biographical Records, 1930-2011, undated (listed alphabetically)

Series 2, Correspondence, 1929-1993, undated (listed alphabetically)

Series 3, Business Records, 1956-1961 (listed alphabetically)

Series 4, Invention Records, 1930-1987, undated (listed alphabetically)

Series 5, Research and Publications, 1926-1986, undated (listed alphabetically)

Series 6, Legal Records, 1925-1980, undated (listed chronologically)

Series 7, Language Study, 1944-1987, undated (listed alphabetically)

Series 8, Printed Materials, 1927-2004, undated (listed alphabetically)

Copies

Digital reproductions of a selection of materials from the John Vincent Atanasoff papers are available electronically. Please see the Electronic Resources section for a link.

Items in related collections

RS 13/20. Iowa State University. Department of Physics and Astronomy records

Collection Files

Processing Information

Released on 2018-11-01.

Title
RS 13/20/51. John Vincent Atanasoff papers, 1925-2011, undated
Date
May 29, 2019
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
English
Script of description
Latin
Language of description note
English

Repository Details

Part of the Special Collections and University Archives Repository

Contact:
403 Parks Library
701 Morrill Road
Iowa State University
Ames Iowa 50011-2102 United States
(515) 294-6672