Iowa-Illinois Memorial Bridge John Vincent Atanasoff's efforts to improve on his calculating machine were met with frustration until one bitter cold evening in the winter of 1937-38 when he drove his car for hours to clear his mind. He stopped in a roadhouse in Rock Island and wrote down the four key concepts of the electronic digital computer on a napkin.

In his own words, Atanasoff described the events of this winter evening: "I went out to my automobile, got in and started driving over the good highways of Iowa at a high rate of speed.

“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.

“I drove into Illinois and turned off the good highway into a little road, and went into a roadhouse there which had bright lights. It was extremely cold and I took my overcoat. I had a very heavy coat, and hung it up, and sat down and ordered a drink, and as the delivery of the drink was made, I realized that I was no longer so nervous and my thoughts turned again to computing machines.

“Now, I don't know why my mind worked then when it had not worked previously, but things seemed to be good and cool and quiet. There were not many people in the tavern, and the waitress didn't bother me particularly with repetitious offers of drinks. I would suspect that I drank two drinks perhaps, and then I realized that thoughts were coming good and I had some positive results.

“During that evening in the Illinois roadhouse, I made four decisions for my computer project.

I would use electricity and electronics as the media for the computer;
In spite of custom, I would use base-two numbers (binary) for my computer;
I would use condensers for memory, but 'regenerate" to avoid lapse;
I would compute by direct logical action, not by enumeration.

“I am now amazed and pleased to find that each of my four decisions relates to structures that are in use in modern computers.” -from Atanasoff's transcript of testimony given in federal court on June 15, 1971.


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