A replica of the Atanasoff-Berry computer. (ISU photo)

Thanks to a road trip, the Quad Cities played a small but important role in the invention of modern computers.

Shawn Beattie, educational technology manager at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, says John Atanasoff was teaching at Iowa State University in 1937 and trying to develop a better, faster computing machine. Frustrated, he took off driving one day, ended up in a Rock Island bar, and wrote down key ideas for a new machine on a cocktail napkin.

“He came up with the first computer to use electronic logic with binary and memory refreshes,” Beattie says, “Those are all concepts that are still found in your I-phone or modern computers that are traceable back to that computer.” After spending three years building the first electronic digital computer, Beattie says Atanasoff gave the patent application to a university lawyer, who — for some reason — never filed it.

John Atanasoff. (ISU photo)

“Which was both a good thing and a bad thing,” Beattie says. “It would have been a great thing for Iowa State to have that patent, but the fact that the patent was not held by any commercial interest, I think and many people think, helped Silicon Valley do what it did in the early ’70s.”

Someone who studied Atanasoff’s invention later tried to patent it, but it was rejected during a landmark federal court case in the 1970s which gave Atanasoff the credit, but also left the computer in the public domain.

(By Herb Trix, WVIK, Rock Island)

Radio Iowa