Atanasoff and Berry did build the first digital computer, starting in 1937 and finishing in 1942, but they never patented it. According to "The First Electronic Computer, The Atanasoff Story" by Alice R. and Arthur W. Burks, the computer sat in the basement of the Iowa State University physics department largely forgotten because most of the nation's engineering and scientific resources at the time had been directed towards the war effort and the building of the atomic bomb. The patent office awarded the rights for the first digital computer to J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly based on their ENIAC design. However, in 1973 a patent trial invalidated those rights, because the judge ruled that the ENIAC was based on the design of the Atanasoff-Berry Computer.
After War World II, the Atanasoff-Berry Computer was taken apart and scattered. However, partly to prove that the Atanasoff-Berry Computer really did work, Iowa State University built an exact duplicate in 1997. The replica stands about as tall as a standard desk. It's about 6 feet wide and 33 inches deep. The original machine was 36 inches deep, too wide to get it through a standard university door, which explains why the original machine never left the basement of the physics department. The reconstruction team didn't want the replica to get stuck somewhere,
so they shorted it by 3 inches. It now tours the country as the first digital computer.
Atanasoff and Berry built the first computer out of the existing telephone switchboard technology of the time. The switches are still manufactured today, but manufacture of the original vacuum tubes gave way to the transistor in the early 50s. The Iowa reconstruction team needed to purchase actual vacuum tubes created at the time from antique dealers. The original mechanical parts were similarly hard to come by, but the reconstruction team managed.
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