The story of the Atanaoff-Berry Computer, or the ABC, has plenty of interesting twists—not the least of which is a March 19, 1972, court ruling pronouncing co-inventor John Vincent Atanasoff the rightful inventor of the electronic digital computer. Previously that title had gone to the inventors of the ENIAC, the first digital general-purpose computer. A judge in the case Honeywell v. Sperry Rand ruled that the basic idea of the ENIAC had been derived from Atanasoff’s work.
During his time at Iowa State College (now University), Atanasoff collaborated with electrical engineering student Clifford E. Berry to develop a faster computing machine—something he had desired since beginning a doctoral program at the University of Wisconsin. Throughout his studies in theoretical physics, Atanasoff sought a way to more quickly perform advanced calculations.
Map to modern computing
One night in 1937, a frustrated Atanasoff—seemingly out of ideas—hit the road with no destination in mind. He found himself 200 miles away at a roadhouse in Illinois, where he ordered a bourbon and outlined the basics of the ABC on the cocktail napkin. His advanced computing machine would rely on electricity, giving it speed; run on the binary system; use regenerative memory; and compute with direct logical action instead of enumeration.
He returned home with this framework in mind, and in 1939 received a $650 grant from Iowa State to work on his invention with Berry. They worked on perfecting the ABC until wartime jobs in defense took them away. The ABC patent process was not completed.
After the war, Atanasoff continued to hear that the ENIAC patent contained elements of his work on the ABC. In 1967, he agreed to cooperate with Honeywall as it challenged the patent, now owned by Sperry Rand.
In 1990, Atanasoff received the National Medal of Technology from President George H.W. Bush for his role in the early days of computing.