The Birth of Digital Computing
History says that the first electronic computers were invented in the mid forties. Unlike mechanical or electromagnetically computers, electronic computers operate primarily by means of electron device such as vacuum tubes, transistors, microchips, and electrons. One of the earliest machines was believed to be Colossus, built by mathematicians Alan Tuning and M.H.A. Newman at Bletchley Park in England. The Colossus started to operate in 1943. It was effective in deciphering the German Enigma Code which changed the course of World War II. The second machine was thought to be Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator, or ENIAC, built by John Mauchly and J. Eckert at University of Pennsylvania, and was operational by 1945. Between 1937 and 1942 and before these impressive machines were conceived, John Vincent Atanasoff of Iowa State University had designed and built two small electronic computers. The first of them was a prototype for a larger machine that is now known as Atanasoff-Berry Computer (ABC). Clifford Berry was then a graduate student at Iowa State and a close collaborator of Atanasoff.
The path that led to the Atanasoff-Berry Computer essentially began when Atanasoff was working on his doctorate in theoretical physics at University of Wisconsin Madison in the late 1920s. He had written his doctorate thesis on electronic structure of helium which involves many laborious calculations with a desk calculator and made him yearn for a more automatic method of computing. After earning his PhD in 1930, Atanasoff became an instructor at Iowa State University where he pondered over the way to achieve such automation for several years. By winter of 1937 he decided on a few general principles. For example, the memory function should be separated from the computational function and that the method of computation should be digital rather than analogue. This meant that the machine would express numbers as digits rather than by analogy to some physical quantity such as distance along the axis of a slide rule. Nevertheless, his idea did not seem to take a definitive form and he grew more and more distressed. Then one night he made several decisive breakthroughs. That evening did not begin with any particular promise. In fact, he was so frustrated that he left his laboratory, got into his car and drove at a high-speed and stopped at a brightly lit roadhouse for few drinks some 200 miles away.
The development of a complex electronic switch known as logic circuit was one of the greatest development in ABC. While still in his Illinois roadhouse, Atanasoff had envisioned two memory units and a logic circuit, which would pass the numbers held in memory based on some hard-wired logic rules. These logic circuits in present day computers are stored in tiny chips which are much faster than vacuum tubes.
We have to realize that major advances in technology that have been made by scientists require tremendous effort by facing uphill challenges and inventing new tools. We can learn a lot from these remarkable efforts by proper studying the basic principles. They have shaped the future of technology and revolutionized our lifestyle. We have to thank John Vincent Atanasoff for his outstanding device.