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Birthplace of the Computer

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

The next time you turn on your IBM or Macintosh to e-mail a daughter or figure your income tax, take a moment as the screen warms to say "thank you" to a nameless, not-quite-respectable bar in Rock Island, Illinois, the birthplace of the modern digital computer.

It was the winter of 1937-38, late afternoon. In his physics lab at Iowa State University, Professor John Vincent Atanasoff grew increasingly frustrated. He had spent years trying to invent an accurate high-speed computer to replace the existing analog computers which had severe limitations. But all his own directions seemed dead ends too.

To get away from it all, he got in his Ford V-8 and headed east across Iowa in the below zero cold, going nowhere. One hundred and eighty-nine miles later, he crossed the Government Bridge at Davenport into Rock Island. Only a single bar light on Main Street beckoned. The professor entered, moved past the five or six silent customers, to a table by himself, and ordered a scotch and soda. The waitress was not one of your small-talk waitresses: she left him alone.

For the next two hours, over a scotch and soda, in his cozy corner, in the dim light, ideas that had eluded his direct attempts for so long now came unbidden.

The four basic principles of the modern digital computer—especially the use of the base-two binary system of numbers—came to him so clearly and so visually that he did not need pen or paper—fortunate, since he had none with him.

Dr. Atanasoff returned to Iowa State and built the first working model of a modern computer. Before he could refine his work, however, World War II took him away from his lab, his model languished on a shelf, and one of his assistants borrowed the concept, claimed himself to be the inventor, and built the famous ENIAC computer in 1946.

Not until the late 60s did a researcher discover Atanasoff's contributions. A corporation took up the case on his behalf, and finally, in 1973, after one of the longest federal court cases in history—five years and 30,000 pieces of evidence—Professor Atanasoff was declared the rightful inventor of the computer.

Now and then, a night in a bar pays off. Whiskey and soda, anyone?

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.