Was the first electronic digital computer invented in downtown Rock Island?

That mystery has never been clearly solved, but the fateful 1937 winter night — when John Vincent Atanasoff drove from Iowa State in Ames to the Quad Cities — is a key part of a documentary that will be shown at Rock Island’s Augustana College.

A free program, “The Birth of the Computer,” will be presented Feb. 23, 2023 at 6 p.m. at Wallenberg Hall, 3520 7th Ave., Rock Island. In addition to showing of the 2013 film “Atanasoff: Father of the Computer,” scheduled speakers will include:

  • Dr. Ashfaq Khokar, chairman of Iowa State University’s electrical and computer engineering department.
  • Shawn Beattie, Augustana’s Information Technology manager.
  • Mark Ridolfi, managing editor of the North Scott Press.
The 45-minute documentary will be shown at Wallenberg, on the second floor of the Denkmann Memorial Building.

The program is presented by the nonprofit Truth First Film Alliance, the Rock Island Public Library and Davenport Public Library.

In the winter months of 1937, Atanasoff — then an assistant professor in mathematics and physics at Iowa State College in Ames — traveled to Rock Island, where he conceptualized the first digital computer, according to a Rock Island Library event summary. The Wallenberg Hall event will “retrace Dr. Atanasoff’s road trip to destiny that fateful night,” it says.

Atanasoff (1903-1995) needed a better calculator that could quickly solve advanced equations and when he tries to find such a machine, realizes that none exists, says a synopsis of the Eye Steel Film documentary. So Atanasoff decided he must build his own calculator.

Through archive material, reenactments, interviews with experts and first-hand witnesses, this documentary “shines a light to controversy over who was the actual inventor of the computer and an unknown part of our history,” the film website says. It was directed by Mila Aung-Thwin and Daniel Cross.

What happened that winter night?

An Iowa State bio on Atanasoff says that his obsession with finding a solution to the computing problem “built to a frenzy in the winter months of 1937. One night, frustrated after many discouraging events, he got into his car and started driving without a destination in mind. Two hundred miles later, he pulled onto a roadhouse in Illinois.

Atanasoff (1903-1995) was a 34-year-old assistant professor of math and physics at Iowa State when he came up with the computer concept (image from Eye Steel Film).

“Here, he had a drink of bourbon and continued thinking about the creation of the machine,” the ISU site says. “No longer nervous and tense, he realized that his thoughts were coming together clearly. He began generating ideas on how to build this computer, writing them down on a cocktail napkin. His four main ideas that came together that night, and were later critical for establishing he as inventor, and the ABC as the first electronic digital computer.”

The Eye Steel documentary also does not specify where this Illinois tavern was located.

Bruce Walters, a Davenport artist and board member of Truth First Film Alliance, said recently that in 1937, Atanasoff drove on Highway 6 coming into the Quad Cities, which was the old bridge from Bettendorf to Moline.

In Atanasoff’s own words: “I remember the pavement was clean and dry, and I was forced to give attention to my driving, and as a consequence of that, I was less nervous, and I drove that way for several hours. Then I sort of became aware of my surroundings. I had, of course, been aware of the road before, but then I became aware of where I was and I had reached the Mississippi River, starting from Ames and was crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois at a place where there are three cities, one of which is Rock Island,” according to a transcript of testimony given in federal court on June 15, 1971.

“I drove into Illinois and turned off the good highway into a little road, and went into a roadhouse there, which had bright lights,” Atanasoff said then. “It was extremely cold and I took my overcoat.”

Atanasoff did not say specifically that he went into Rock Island, Walters said.

A re-creation of the 1937 Illinois roadhouse where Atanasoff traveled to, in the 2013 documentary (Eye Steel Film).

A co-writer of the documentary, Kirwan Cox, was convinced that the Rock Island roadhouse was the old Hunter’s Club, 2107 4th Ave. In 2009, Cox of Eye Steel Films (based in Montreal) filmed inside the former Hunter’s Club for another documentary on the history of the computer for the Canadian History Channel. Walters doesn’t think Atanasoff went to Hunter’s.

Interviewing the humble man

Mark Ridolfi, managing editor of the North Scott Press, interviewed Atanasoff in 1983 at Iowa State, when he was a 25-year-old United Press International reporter, based in Davenport. Ridolfi had no idea who he was before getting the assignment and had to do some quick research.

“I knew very little when I got there and he was a wonderfully generous, patient, nice guy,” he recalled Wednesday. “I knew jack squat about computers.

Mark Ridolfi was a young UPI reporter when he interviewed Atanasoff in Ames in 1983.

“But he’s real patient. And so what I remember when we talked about it is, trying to pinpoint the route he took into the Quad Cities,” he said, noting Atanasoff couldn’t recall exactly, but thought it was Rock Island right off the bridge. That meant he likely came across the Government Bridge from Davenport to Rock Island.

“We talked about how he thought at that time that computers would never be a useful household thing,” Ridolfi said, noting of course today smartphones put a computer in everyone’s pocket. “That was a little angle I played with.”

He said Atanasoff was clear that fateful night he ended up in a Rock Island bar, and Hunter’s Club first opened in 1931. “I’d kind of like to believe it was Hunter’s, but I don’t,” Ridolfi said.

“He had addressed that he just had to clear his mind, so he can start focusing on those other ideas,” he said of his long drive. “I don’t understand the breakthrough that he made, but it was so important.”

Building a computer with $650

After receiving a $650 grant from Iowa State College in 1939, Atanasoff was ready to build his computer. He hired a particularly bright electrical engineering student, Clifford E. Berry, to help him accomplish his goal, according to the ThoughtCo website.

With his background in electronics and mechanical construction skills, the brilliant and inventive Berry was the ideal partner for Atanasoff. They worked at developing and improving the ABC or Atanasoff-Berry Computer, as it was later named, from 1939 until 1941. 

The final product was the size of a desk, weighed 700 pounds, had over 300 vacuum tubes, and contained a mile of wire. It could calculate about one operation every 15 seconds. Today, computers can calculate 150 billion operations in 15 seconds. Too large to go anywhere, the computer remained in the basement of the physics department. 

The Eye Steel documentary discusses a major lawsuit over the patent of the ENIAC computer, which Atanasoff claimed infringed on his ABC.

An interview with Atanasoff in the 2013 documentary (Eye Steel Film)

The landmark U.S. federal court decision in October 1973 invalidated the 1964 patent for the ENIAC, the world’s first general-purpose electronic digital computer.

The decision included: that the ENIAC inventors had derived the subject matter of the electronic digital computer from the Atanasoff–Berry computer (ABC), prototyped in 1939 by John Atanasoff and Clifford Berry; gave legal recognition to Atanasoff as the inventor of the first electronic digital computer; and put the invention of the electronic digital computer in the public domain.

A huge, lasting legacy

If that case wasn’t decided like that, Microsoft would never have happened and the Internet never would have happened, the 2013 documentary says.

In 1990, President George H. W. Bush awarded Atanasoff the United States National Medal of Technology, the highest U.S. honor conferred for achievements related to technological progress.

“I would like to see Atanasoff remembered the way we remember the Wright Brothers,” one interviewee in the film says, noting the inventors of the airplane. “You put something together to make something happen in a really revolutionary way. There have been other people who contributed to the technology, before and since. But the big step forward was made by John Atanasoff.”

Since the landmark Honeywell v. Sperry Rand case, “JVA has been celebrated by many as a man who helped to change the face of the world through developments in computing,” the Iowa State bio says. “Many of the concepts that originated with the ABC are still used as basic components of the computers we use today.”

Davenport artist Bruce Walters designed the poster for the Feb. 23 program.

Walters said that many more Quad Citizens need to know about Atanasoff.

“I thought it was a shame that the area just didn’t recognize this. I seriously think when you go to the airport, that’s the first thing you should read,” he said this week. “Are you kidding? You make the claim of probably the most impactful invention. So I would like to use this event to see if we can maybe get some momentum for that. It’s just such a shame that that’s not just almost part of what everybody knows about this area.”

After the Augie event Feb. 23, there will be a reception at Bent River Brewing Company, at 512 24th St., Rock Island. It’s unclear if bourbon will be served.