John Vincent Atanasoff (1903-1995) was an important American computer pioneer; his father was born in Bulgaria and came to the United States as a young boy. Due to his Bulgarian origin and some factors about which I will speak in this review, Atanasoff had a special relationship to the home country of his father, where he is held in high esteem – sometimes enthusiastically, but factually incorrect referred to as “the Bulgarian who invented the computer”.
The book John Atanasoff – The Electronic Prometheus by Blagovest Sendov (St. Kliment Ohridski University Press, Sofia 2003, translated by Maya Pencheva and Todor Shopov) is focusing on the “Bulgarian connection” of Atanasoff; while it is not a biography, it makes for the first time many documents and private letters of Atanasoff available, mainly the correspondence with the author of the book, a Bulgarian mathematician and computer scientist. In the last part, the book publishes Atanasoff’s own paper Advent of electronic digital computing, an account of his personal development and achievements as an engineer and scientist, a report that documents in detail not only the fascinating story of the ABC (Atanasoff-Berry Computer), but also the extremely long and difficult patent litigation that followed and that ended with an almost complete success for Atanasoff.
Atanasoff was a professor of physics and mathematics at the Iowa State College in the 1930’s, and one of his scientific interests was the solution of complex systems of up to 30 linear equations. Since these complicated systems of equations couldn’t be resolved in acceptable time by humans, and the existing calculators were also not able to process such complicated operations, it became clear to Atanasoff that he had to build a fast calculator himself if he wanted to get the job done. Together with Clifford Berry, a very talented graduate student, he worked in his free time on the development of such an engine. The two breakthroughs on the way to finally make the ABC operational were the decision to use binary code (with 2 instead of 10 as a base of the number system used), and to introduce electronic tubes instead of mechanic or electro-technical solutions.
Atanasoff started his work on the computer in 1937, first alone and later with Berry; in 1942, the ABC was operational. (Konrad Zuse’s Z3, a digital computer also on binary, but on electro-technical basis was already operational in 1941, more than one year before the ABC – a fact that was unknown to Atanasoff and Berry. Zuse’s computer was – contrary to the ABC – also Turing-complete. Strangely, Zuse is mentioned only once in Sendov’s book: “During WWII Conrad(sic!) Zuse built in Germany a computer too perfect for its time, which used switches.”)
In the period when Atanasoff and Berry were working on the ABC, a young professional, John Mauchley, got in touch with them; Atanasoff and Berry shared the basic concepts and the blueprints of the ABC with him during a visit of Mauchley that lasted several days; later it turned out that Mauchley used the design of the ABC as a basis of a computer he would build together with John Eckert: the ENIAC. In the patent documents they submitted, there was no mentioning of the fact that the basic concepts of ENIAC were indeed Atanasoff’s (and Berry’s), and not those of Mauchley and Eckert.
Atanasoff was for a long time unaware of this patent fraud, but an IBM patent expert visited him in the 1954 and promised him “If you will help us, we will break the Mauchley-Eckert computer patent; it was derived from you.” Considering his previous bad experience with IBM, Atanasoff declined, but in 1967 Sperry Rand Corporation started a law suit regarding the ENIAC patents, followed by a second one in 1971 (Honeywell vs. Sperry Rand). In both cases, Atanasoff – Berry had allegedly committed suicide, although the circumstances were somehow fishy – and his counterparts were heard as witnesses over extended periods. In 1973, a federal court in Minneapolis ruled that indeed the patent on ENIAC was void and that Atanasoff and Berry had built the first digital electronic computer and that the patented idea was Atanasoff’s.
In 1970, when Atanasoff’s role in the development of the modern digital computer was not widely known even in the scientific community, he was contacted by Sendov, then a professor at Sofia University. What started as a rather formal correspondence between colleagues who share similar research interests, grew into a close personal exchange that included several meetings in the United States and also two visits of Atanasoff in Bulgaria.
For Atanasoff, it must have been an emotionally extremely touching and uplifting experience that his achievements were not only recognized by his Bulgarian colleagues – he was even made a member of the Bulgarian Academy of Science, a rather rare achievement for a scientist from a capitalist country, who had on top of it a long track record in working in the development of the nuclear and conventional arms industry of the United States. Particularly his 1970 visit in his father’s home village Boyajik near Yambol (his grandfather had been killed by the Turks in 1876), the Bulgarian hospitality, the opportunity to connect with his unknown relatives and an old colleague from his time as a student, the personal friendship he made with Sendov and a few other scientists not only from the field of computer science – it is all reflected in the later very warm and personal correspondence of Atanasoff.
The engineer and scientist comes across in this correspondence as a good-natured, friendly and open man with a variety of interests that included beside his family such different fields as agriculture – he grew his own fruits and vegetables, something for which he “blamed” his Bulgarian heritage – or the plan for the development of a new universal phonetic alphabet, an issue he liked to discuss with a Bulgarian linguist as well. His Bulgarian friends even lobbied in Stockholm for him, when he was proposed as a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Physics, and Todor Zhivkov, the Head of State and Chairman of the Communist Party of Bulgaria wrote a support letter to get him the Marconi International Fellowship (both applications failed). The decades of battle in and out of court regarding the recognition of his and Berry’s invention in the United States were probably very disappointing for Atanasoff, and that the country of his father offered recognition, support and friendship meant for sure a lot to him.
I was of course wondering, if Atanasoff and Sendov had maybe second thoughts when they started their personal acquaintance that lead to such a close friendship, including also the families of both men. After all, it was the time of the Cold War, and it is difficult to imagine that the two of them moved completely out of the orbit of the intelligence services of both countries, for whom these meetings must have been extremely interesting. Therefore I wouldn’t be too surprised if one day documents related to that question would emerge from some archive. And I also wouldn’t be too surprised if the “Atanasoff story” would make it sooner or later into a Hollywood movie: it has all the ingredients a successful film needs.
Fazit: Atanasoff was a colorful person with a strong Bulgarian connection. Sendov’s book is the ultimate work on this topic (so far). Atanasoff was a very important computer pioneer, but not the inventor of the computer.
Blagovest Sendov: John Atanasoff – The Electronic Prometheus, St. Kliment Ohridski University Press, Sofia 2003, translated by Maya Pencheva and Todor Shopov
This review was first published at Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, 05 June, 2018 for #BulgarianLiteratureMonth.
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