Artifact Details


Jane Smiley : author of the man who invented the computer : the biography of John Atanasoff, digital pioneer

Catalog Number



Moving image




Hollar, John C., Speaker
Smiley, Jane, Speaker


Computer History Museum

Place of Publication

Mountain View, California





Copyright Holder

Computer History Museum


Event abstract: One night in the late 1930s, in a bar on the Illinois-Iowa border, John Vincent Atanasoff, a professor of physics at Iowa State University, after a frustrating day performing tedious mathematical calculations in his lab, hit on the idea that the binary number system and electronic switches, combined with an array of capacitors on a moving drum to serve as memory, could yield a computing machine that would make his life and the lives of other similarly burdened scientists easier. Then he went back and built the machine. It worked. The whole world changed.

Why don't we know the name of John Atanasoff as well as we know those of Alan Turing and John von Neumann? Atanasoff never secured a patent for his early device, and a number of the concepts he pioneered were incorporated into the breakthrough ENIAC computer that evolved into the legendary UNIVAC. But in 1973 a court declared that the patent on that Sperry Rand device was invalid, opening the intellectual property gates to the computer revolution.

Join Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Jane Smiley in a conversation with the Computer History Museum's John Hollar about the fascinating man who beat the world's greatest minds in the quest to develop the first true digital computing machine.

This event is the first in our 2011 lecture series celebrating Revolutionaries, featuring conversations with and about some of the most distinguished thinkers in the computing field. The Revolutionaries lecture series complements the launch of the Computer History Museum's permanent exhibition: Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing.

Watch this event on the Computer History Museum's YouTube channel.




Smiley, Jane; Atanasoff, John V. (John Vincent); Atanasoff-Berry Computer (ABC)

Collection Title

CHM Lecture Collection

Lot Number