The Man Who Invented the Computer

The Biography of John Atanasoff, Digital Pioneer

by Jane Smiley

Hardcover, 246 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $25.95 | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

The Man Who Invented the Computer
The Biography of John Atanasoff, Digital Pioneer
Jane Smiley

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Book Summary

Traces the originating role of physics professor John Vincent Atanasoff to the invention of the computer, describing his innovative construction of an unpatented electronic device that used binary numbers to ease the lives of burdened scientists. By the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Thousand Acres. 50,000 first printing.

Read an excerpt of this book

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Man Who Invented The Computer

Chapter One

John Vincent Atanasoff's father, Ivan, was born in 1876, in the midst of a period of climaxing political unrest. His parents were landed peasants in the Bulgarian village of Boyadzhik (about eighty miles from the Black Sea and perhaps halfway between Istanbul and Sofia). The Ottoman Empire was breaking up—Serbia had won independence in 1830 and Greece in 1832. Revolutionary agitation in Bulgaria, which intensified in the 1870s, culminated in the April Uprising of 1876, in which bands of Christian resistance fighters attacked Ottoman government offices and police enclaves. The attacks were followed by a campaign of reprisal on the part of the Ottoman government. Ivan's father, Atanas, and his mother, Yana, were forced to flee their village, Atanas carrying the baby Ivan in his arms. In the course of the melee, Yana was knocked unconscious and Atanas was shot in the back. The bullet killed Atanas and creased the baby's scalp as it exited through his father's chest, but Ivan and Yana survived (though American translator Eugene Schuyler estimated from his own observations at the time that fifteen thousand Bulgarians were killed, and five monasteries and fifty-eight villages—including Boyadzhik—were destroyed in these attacks). The revolution was put down for the time being and the Ottoman response was widely publicized and deplored, and then in mid-1877, Russia attacked the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans with the express purpose of liberating the Balkan Christian states and regaining access to the Black Sea that Russia had lost in the Crimean War. The conflict was short—the autonomy of Bulgaria was recognized in the Treaty of San Stefano, signed on March 3, 1878. Among the Russian cheerleaders for the war were Ivan Turgenev, who thought Bulgaria should be liberated, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who hoped to unite all Eastern Orthodox churches under the Russian church.

Yana subsequently married a local cattle breeder who could afford to educate little Ivan, while her brother made contact with American missionaries, who helped him get to America. When this uncle returned on a visit to Bulgaria in the late 1880s, young Ivan, now thirteen, decided to go back to America with him. Yana financed the trip by selling a piece of land that Atanas had left her.

At Ellis Island, Ivan Atanasov's name was changed to John Atanasoff. Although he had a bit of money, it was only enough to rent a room in New York City so that he could work at a series of menial restaurant and handyman jobs while he improved his English. Life was difficult and jobs were scarce, though he did manage to keep a chicken in his room for a while. A charitable local minister he met through his uncle found him a place as a student at the prestigious Peddie School, in Hightstown, New Jersey (not far from Princeton), where he worked hard and did well, but upon graduation, his education at first seemed to be of little use—his uncle had returned to Bulgaria, and there were no more family funds forthcoming. He was homeless for a while, working temporary jobs, but then he related his tale to a Baptist minister named Cooke, who encouraged him to seek the aid of various local congregations. Once he had accumulated $200 in savings and gifts, Pastor Cooke helped him find a spot at Colgate, at that time a Baptist-affiliated college.

At Colgate, John met the sister of two brothers who were fellow students, a girl named Iva Purdy, a descendant of early settlers in Connecticut and generations of farmers in upstate New York. Iva, herself a high school graduate with a talent for mathematics, was teaching in a nearby school. After courting Iva, John married her at Christmas 1900 and then graduated from Colgate the following June. John Vincent was born on October 4, 1903.

Although John had taken his degree in philosophy, he found work in industrial engineering at the Edison power plant in Orange, New Jersey. When work at the plant (possibly chemicals used in the manufacture of lightbulbs) seemed to be adversely affecting his health, he moved on to the power plant in Utica, New York, then to the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad electrical plant in Hoboken, New Jersey. At night, he took correspondence courses in electrical engineering. Four children had been born by the time John Vincent was nine—two who lived and two who died in infancy. John and Iva came to feel that the family was not thriving because, in addition to John's own respiratory problems, the children were suffering repeated bouts of illness. They decided to move to the newly founded town of Brewster, Florida, on the west coast, some thirty miles as the crow flies southeast of Tampa, where American Cyanamid was in the process of exploiting local phosphate deposits. John got a good job, and the children's health improved. John Vincent attended school at the local two-room schoolhouse.

Iva Atanasoff gave her oldest child considerable freedom, both of action and of thought, in part because other children were born in Florida (eventually there were seven) and she oversaw a large garden in addition to the household. But Iva also retained her interest in intellectual pursuits—according to family stories, she liked to sit in her rocking chair and read while John and his younger brothers and sisters played about her. By the time young John got to school, he already knew how to read and calculate, and at first he was a difficult pupil—he was used to following his own agenda. Since he had no trouble doing his work, he finished ahead of the other children, and once he had done so, he made himself a "pest," according to his younger sister. But he was an inconvenient pupil also because he was inquisitive and knew more than many of his teachers. He was easily offended, especially by teasing and slurs, and he didn't mind getting into fights. Some teachers handled him well and some did not, but however they handled him, his pronounced eagerness to learn persisted—he eagerly explored both the countryside and whatever books he could get hold of.

In 1913, when he was not quite ten, John helped his father wire their home for electricity (subsequently, they wired the homes of some of their neighbors, too). In 1914, John mastered the owner's manual of his father's new Ford Model T, and at eleven he was driving it. John read his mother's books, including Ruskin and Spenser, and he read his father's books—including a manual on radiotelephony (wireless sound transmission). When his father ordered an up-to-date slide rule, then decided that he didn't really need it, John mastered it within a couple of weeks and thereupon became, in his own mind, a nascent mathematician. He found his father's old college algebra textbook and began to work his way through it. What he could not understand (differential calculus, infinite series, logarithms) Iva explained to him. During this period, he learned about various number systems other than the decimal system—this unusual familiarity with nondecimal ways of counting and calculating and his practice using them was what would eventually distinguish his ideas about calculators from those of his contemporaries.

John liked to make things and to demonstrate his skills—in sixth grade, because some older girls who had already finished elementary school were gathering in the back of the classroom and crocheting, he learned to crochet. He pursued his project at school, no longer undaunted by teasing but stimulated by it—he flaunted his work and bragged about his skills until the teacher banned crocheting at school. He soon learned to sew. In fact, John Vincent Atanasoff seemed to see every new idea or object as an opportunity to explore and master whatever his world had to offer. Atanasoff's parents gave him plenty of freedom, encouraged his enterprise, and helped him pursue what he wanted to master. They also made a stable life for him in an out-of-the-way spot where there was plenty to do and plenty of space to do it in.

The Atanasoffs' life in Brewster was not untroubled—the Atanasoff family, with its strange name and alien ways, was sometimes harassed and their property vandalized. John Atanasoff encountered resentment at work. The larger culture seethed with prejudice and vigilantism. A local Catholic lawyer was run out of the area. Between 1909, when the Atanasoffs arrived in Brewster, and 1920, more than fifty black people were lynched in Florida—Atanasoff himself remembered witnessing a lynching as a teenager, in Mulberry (about eleven miles north of Brewster), though that one is not attested to in Ralph Ginzburg's 100 Years of Lynchings.

In 1912, John and Iva purchased a 155-acre farm southwest of Brewster, which included a 30-acre orange grove and 120 acres of timber. For young John, the farm meant more scope for exploration and, in particular, endless chances to not only repair the machinery used on the farm, but to take it apart and improve its design. The boy became interested in farming itself—he subscribed to Wallaces' Farmer (the publication founded in Iowa by the grandfather of Vice President Henry A. Wallace) and tried the latest farming techniques. Since John Atanasoff worked full time, young John became the one who organized and ran the farm. In the meantime, he graduated from the high school in Mulberry, completing his coursework in two years, at fifteen. The teachers at the high school did not attempt to control Atanasoff's independence or restrict his education—they encouraged his curiosity and his enterprise. Once he had graduated, Atanasoff got himself certified to teach math classes and saved the money he earned toward his college education, which he already knew would be in math and science. He worked for a year as a phosphate prospector and entered the University of Florida in 1921, just before his eighteenth birthday.

The University of Florida is and was a land-grant university. The Morrill Act of 1862, under which both the University of Florida and Iowa State College were founded, was written for a specific educational purpose: "to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life." In other words, the land-grant colleges were intended to focus on the useful. In what is perhaps the paradigm of public higher education, the three state-funded colleges in Iowa are an example of this idea of the distinct (and class-based) purposes of higher education: postgraduate degrees are offered by the medical school, the art school, the music school, the graduate school, the law school, and the business school at the University of Iowa. Postgraduate degrees in engineering, agriculture, veterinary medicine, design, and industrial engineering are offered at Iowa State (though these categories have gotten somewhat less distinct in the last twenty-five years). The third state-funded school was, until 1961, Iowa State Teachers College, a normal school. Although the system of higher education was not as distinct in every state as it was in Iowa (the University of Wisconsin and the University of Minnesota have all types of programs on the same campus), the land-grant colleges retained their focus on disciplines applicable to the health and wealth of the individual states. The Morrill Act promised to fund these colleges by granting each state thirty thousand acres of federal land, the proceeds of which would go to the colleges. The land did not have to be inside the state—New York State was granted land in Wisconsin, for example.

The Morrill Act did not originally cover Florida, because the Confederate states had seceded from the Union before the passage of the act, but the act was extended in 1890 to the former Confederate states. Most of these states used money from the act to fund the useful arts at the main campus and to fund the establishment of separate, segregated black colleges. In 1905, Florida Agricultural College, in Lake City, was moved fifty miles south to Gainesville and renamed the University of the State of Florida. At the time of John Vincent Atanasoff's matriculation, the university was all male and all white—women students went to Florida Female College, in Tallahassee, and black students of both sexes went to Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes, also in Tallahassee. Related to the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 was the Hatch Act of 1887, which funded (also through land grants) the establishment of agricultural experiment stations in each of the states. These stations were normally attached to the land-grant colleges, broadening their practical mandate.

By the time he began college, Atanasoff knew he wanted to study physics and to be a physicist. He was familiar with and excited by Einstein's theories and by the other work being done in the field, but no physics major was offered at the university, so he went into electrical engineering, the most theoretical scientific major offered. In Gainesville, Atanasoff was surrounded by opportunities to think, but also opportunities to do. Requirements of the electrical engineering major included building models and projects, so Atanasoff took classes in machine shop, forge and foundry, and electrical mechanics. He also pursued his earlier interest in radio communication. He tutored students for money and worked summers—one summer in Jacksonville, he found a lucrative job surveying the city streets. He was, in short, brilliant, eager, enterprising, highly directed, and hardworking. Just as John Atanasoff's life had been almost a paradigm of the classic immigrant story, John Vincent Atanasoff's life was almost a paradigm of the classic ambitious American tale—a Tom Sawyer-like boyhood followed by a Horatio Alger-style self-funded and successful career.

But the elder Atanasoff's life remained difficult—while John Vincent was away in Gainesville, John and Iva decided to sell the farm and move to Bradley Junction, a town between Brewster and Mulberry. One night when John was coming home, he was attacked by a mob clad in white robes and nearly killed. He was saved by the wife of the Cyanamid plant manager, who heard the ruckus and ran outside with a shotgun. The mob was revealed to be made up, in part, of neighbors whose children Iva tutored in math and, in part, men who worked for John at the plant, all apparently motivated by the strangeness of John's name and origins. The attackers broke John's leg and ribs, and there were so many internal injuries that John was bedridden for weeks; John Vincent had to return from college to help take care of him. Although the attack was foiled, the younger Atanasoff children suffered for years from the xenophobia, and probably the envy, of the local population.