Atanasoff–Berry Computer

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The Atanasoff–Berry Computer (ABC) was the first fully electronic digital computing device.[1] Conceived in 1937, the machine was not programmable, being designed only to solve systems of linear equations. It was successfully tested in 1942. However, its intermediate result storage mechanism, a paper card writer/reader, was unreliable, and when Atanasoff left Iowa State University for World War II assignments, work on the machine was discontinued.[2] The ABC pioneered important elements of modern computing, including binary arithmetic and electronic switching elements,[3] but its special-purpose nature and lack of a changeable, stored program distinguish it from modern computers.

John Vincent Atanasoff's and Clifford Berry's computer work was not widely known until it was rediscovered in the 1960s, amidst conflicting claims about the first instance of an electronic computer. At that time, the ENIAC was considered to be the first computer in the modern sense, but in 1973 a U.S. District Court invalidated the ENIAC patent and concluded that the ABC was the first "computer" (see Patent dispute).


Design and construction

According to Atanasoff's account, several key principles of the Atanasoff–Berry Computer (ABC) were conceived in a sudden insight after a long nighttime drive during the winter of 1937–38. The ABC innovations included electronic computation, binary arithmetic, parallel processing, regenerative capacitor memory, and a separation of memory and computing functions. The mechanical and logic design was worked out by Dr. Atanasoff over the next year. A grant application to build a proof of concept prototype was submitted in March, 1939 to the Agronomy department which was also interested in speeding up computation for economic and research analysis. $5,000 of further funding to complete the machine came from the nonprofit Research Corporation of New York City.

The ABC was built by Dr. Atanasoff and graduate student Clifford Berry in the basement of the physics building at Iowa State College during 1939–42. The initial funds were released in September, and the 11-tube prototype was first demonstrated in October, 1939. A December demonstration prompted a grant for construction of the full-scale machine.[4] The ABC was built and tested over the next two years. A January 15, 1941 story in the Des Moines Register announced the ABC as "an electrical computing machine" with more than 300 vacuum tubes that would "compute complicated algebraic equations" (but gave no precise technical description of the computer). The system weighed more than seven hundred pounds (320 kg).and was 800 square feet (74 m2) in all. It contained approximately 1 mile (1.6 km) of wire, 280 dual-triode vacuum tubes, 31 thyratrons, and was about the size of a desk.

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