Round the corner of a newly opened exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C., and you’ll see a photograph of a young man named John V. Atanasoff. Below it is a much smaller photo of John Mauchly.
For decades it would have been the other way around-if you saw Atanasoff’s picture at all. Atanasoff invented the modern computer, but it took a 1973 court ruling and years of campaigning by his family and others to gain him recognition as a founding father of the information age.
Atanasoff’s rise plays like a Hollywood script. It’s the tale of a ray of inspiration, fueled with a little bourbon in an Illinois bar, that created the computer; a liberal dose of misplaced trust; and millions in lost royalties.
It’s also the tale of a genius inventor whose brainstorm eventually worked its way into everyone’s life. It’s almost impossible to imagine present-day money management, stock trading and banking without computers.
Atanasoff, a theoretical physicist, taught at Iowa State College (now Iowa State University), in Ames. In the late 1930s he began thinking about ways to simplify the myriad computations necessary for his research. Breakthroughs in electronics, such as the invention of the vacuum…