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John Vincent Atanasoff

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  John Vincent Atanasoff (1905 - 1995)

By the mid-to-late 1930s, the time for binary numbering had finally come.

John Atanasoff, a physics professor at Iowa State College, decided - almost against his better judgement - to base his version of a computer on the binary system.

Atanasoff was convinced that the two digit binary system - with its benefit of reducing ten symbols to two in his machine's circuitry - would increase speed and efficiency, but he was concerned that users might be confused by the transition from the familiar decimal system.

Nevertheless, he decided to go ahead and, by 1939, Atanasoff had built a prototype binary computer.

The machine designed and built by Atanasoff and a young engineering student, Clifford Berry, by 1942, was capable of solving differential equations using binary math, although it couldn't be programmed and had no central processing unit. Regardless, some of the design components of the Atanasoff-Berry Computer would later be included in the architecture of the modern computer.

A visit by one John Mauchly ensured that Atanasoff had to wait some time for the kudos, though.

Mauchly and his colleague, J. Presper Eckert Jr, were later credited with the invention of the first digital computer, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC). It wasn't until 1973 that the patent for ENIAC was voided in court when it was found to be based on discussions with Atanasoff about the Atanasoff-Berry Computer.

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The Atanasoff-Berry Computer itself was dismantled while Atanasoff was on leave to work for the Naval Ordnance Lab in Washington, D.C. Only a few pieces were saved to help with the reconstruction some years later.

In 1949, Atanasoff became chief scientist for Army Field Forces at Fort Monroe, Virginia, although he stayed only a year before returning to Washington and the Naval Ordnance Lab, where he worked as Director of the Navy Fuse Program.

Atanasoff established his own company, The Ordnance Engineering Corporation, in 1952, and retired in 1961.

Binary - So Simple a Computer Can Do It