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QC Role in Birth of the Computer

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Iowa State University
A replica of the Atanasoff-Berry Computer at ISU

The Quad Cities played a tiny but important role in the invention of modern computers. And that'll be part of an event Thursday night at Augustana College, "Birth of the Computer: The John Atanasoff Story."

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Iowa State University
John Atanasoff, inventor of the electronic digital computer

Shawn Beattie, Educational Technology Manager for the college, says in 1937 Atanasoff was teaching at Iowa State University, and trying to develop a better and faster computing machine. Frustrated, he took off driving one day, ended up in a bar in Rock Island, and with a drink, wrote down the key ideas for a new machine on a cocktail napkin.

"And he came up with the first computer to use electronic logic with binary and memory refreshes - 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 to build the first electronic digital computer, he gave the patent application to a university lawyer, who for some reason never filed it.

"Both a good thing and a bad thing. 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 70's."

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

"The John Atanasoff Story" begins at 6 pm Thursday in Augustana's Wallenberg Hall, and will include the showing of a documentary about him and panel discussion.

A native of Detroit, Herb Trix began his radio career as a country-western disc jockey in Roswell, New Mexico (“KRSY, your superkicker in the Pecos Valley”), in 1978. After a stint at an oldies station in Topeka, Kansas (imagine getting paid to play “Louie Louie” and “Great Balls of Fire”), he wormed his way into news, first in Topeka, and then in Freeport Illinois.