Iowa State University, Ames

Many consider John Vincent “JV” Atanasoff the Thomas Edison of the computer, but unlike Edison, he never received a dime for his invention. However Atanasoff was content to simply be recognized as the father of the modern computer, something that eluded him until a Supreme Court decision in 1973, more than 25 years after he and his graduate assistant did their work in Ames.

Atanasoff, born in 1903 in Hamilton, NY and raised in central Florida, discovered his love of mathematics early in life. This son of a Bulgarian immigrant taught himself logarithms by age nine. When he graduated from University of Florida in 1925 with a degree in electrical engineering, Harvard offered him a fellowship but he had already accepted one from Iowa State College. In Ames, he earned a masters degree in mathematics, got married and started a family. Atanasoff left for a few years to get his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin then returned to teaching in Ames.

The Iowa State physicist began thinking about a calculating machine in 1933. With a grant of $650 for parts and assistant Clifford Berry’s wages, Atanasoff was able to complete his work on a prototype. With an additional grant of $850 the Atanasoff Berry Computer (ABC) was constructed.

In the early 1940s Atanasoff was drafted. He left Iowa to do his part in the war effort, working in the Naval Ordinance Laboratory in Washington, D.C. This time he didn’t return to Iowa. He went on to run three research corporations and would file for 32 patents, something he and Iowa State hadn’t done for the ABC.

The battle over who invented the computer started in 1967. It was a battle between computer industry giants over patent payments. When all was said and done, the court ruled that the computer patent belonged to Atanasoff.

In 1995 Atanasoff suffered a stroke at his home in Maryland and died.