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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Along the Iowa Computer Trail - Ames

Iowa is responsible for a large number of people who contributed much to the growth of the computer industry in the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s.  Wait a minute, did I just say "the 1930s?"  Yes I did!

Iowa State University at Ames houses the state's major Engineering school.  Back in the 1930s, a math and physics professor by the name of John Atanasoff was looking for a better way to calculate solutions to problems in his field than just using the mechanical calculators of his day.  With a grant of $650 in hand, he was able to hire a graduate student, Cliff Berry, and they built quite an electronic calculating machine.  The machine, known later as the A-B-C, or Atanasoff-Berry Computer was constructed in the basement of the Physics building on the campus.  Here is a picture of the building as it looks today:

Here is closer look at the commemorative plaque.

That final title, "father of the computer" can start quite an argument among historians of Computer Science.  If you take a look at this quite recent article in the February, 2011 issue of Philadelphia Magazine, you'll get a flavor the argument:
But a growing group of Iowans, perhaps miffed that their state is best known for a not particularly nutritious vegetable, would have you believe that it was their Midwestern home that begat this world-changing technology
The other contender for first electonic digital computer is Mauchly and Eckert's ENIAC.

There is a plaque on the corner of thirty-third and Walnut in Philadelphia that memorializes the ENIAC of 1946.  I haven't photographed that one yet.  But I will point out that the Atanasoff partisans have two things going for them.
  1. A federal judge ruled that the ENIAC was derived from Atanasoff's prior work.
  2. Iowa State thought that Atanasoff's work was significant enough to name their current Computer Science building for him.  (The Moore School in Philadelphia basically forced Mauchly out of their University.)

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