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Napkin links Q-C to first computer


Dispatch/Argus Photo By Nobuko Oyabu

Allan Hamilton looks at a replica of the Atanasoff-Berry Computer, among other displays about the history of world's first electronic digital computer, before the opening reception at Augustana College Library. Inventor John Atanasoff of Ames, Iowa, came up with the design and drew it on a cocktail napkin at a Rock Island bar in 1937.

ROCK ISLAND -- A thirsty college professor, a Rock Island bar and a cocktail napkin give the Quad-Cities a legendary role in the history of world's first computer.

The area's link to the computer creation dates back to a wintry night in late 1937 when Iowa State University physics professor John Vincent Atanasoff hopped in his car for a ride to clear his head after becoming frustrated with his work on the project.

He drove as fast as he could to avoid thinking about the problems at hand, according to a 1985 interview, but he got thirsty during his wild drive and started looking for place to get a drink. Davenport was dry, he discovered. So he crossed a bridge over the Mississippi River and traveled into Illinois, where he found a roadhouse.

Many theories exist about what bar Mr. Atanasoff finally found. Local historian and columnist Marlene Gantt suggested it could have been the Buffalo Tap on the 27th Street hill in Rock Island, while retired Black Hawk College professor Robert Custer thought it was the bar in the former Harms Hotel, a tavern predecessor of the Gay Nineties. Neither idea, nor other possible locations, could be verified.

However, while Mr. Atanasoff sat in the unidentified tavern, reportedly drinking bourbon, he devised theories and concepts that became key to the creation of the first computer developed by graduate student Clifford Berry and him in the early 1940s.

As the concepts came into mind, Mr. Atanasoff scribbled notes on a cocktail napkin and returned to Ames, Iowa, ready to get to work on the project.

It was at the Rock Island roadhouse where he developed the idea of using a binary counting system. His cocktail-napkin concepts dealt with the use of a digital machine for calculations, serial calculation, logic circuits and regenerative memory.

Mr. Berry and he built a prototype and full-scale model of the first computing machine to use electricity and vacuum tubes, binary numbers, capacitors in a rotating drum for memory regeneration and logic circuits for computing. The logic circuits were digital rather than analog.

Mr. Atanasoff and Mr. Berry nearly lost their place in computer history, but a multi-million-dollar lawsuit ruling in 1973 clarified and verified they were indeed the originators of the world's first computer, and Mr. Atanasoff officially became known as the father of the computer.

A replica of the Atanasoff-Berry Computer, known more simply as the ABC, was built by a team of scientists, technicians and students at Ames Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy facility at Iowa State University, and sent on tour throughout Iowa and a few other locations.

The tour included a stop at Augustana College because of Rock Island's legendary cocktail-napkin link. It was the only Illinois stop on the tour.

-- By Leon Lagerstam (February 9, 1998)

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