Was the first electronic digital computer invented in downtown Rock Island?
That mystery has never been clearly solved, but the fateful 1937 winter night — when John Vincent Atanasoff drove from Iowa State in Ames to the Quad Cities — is a key part of a documentary that will be shown at Rock Island’s Augustana College.
A free program, “The Birth of the Computer,” will be presented Feb. 23, 2023 at 6 p.m. at Wallenberg Hall, 3520 7th Ave., Rock Island. In addition to showing of the 2013 film “Atanasoff: Father of the Computer,” scheduled speakers will include:
- Dr. Ashfaq Khokar, chairman of Iowa State University’s electrical and computer engineering department.
- Shawn Beattie, Augustana’s Information Technology manager.
- Mark Ridolfi, managing editor of the North Scott Press.
The program is presented by the nonprofit Truth First Film Alliance, the Rock Island Public Library and Davenport Public Library.
In the winter months of 1937, Atanasoff — then an assistant professor in mathematics and physics at Iowa State College in Ames — traveled to Rock Island, where he conceptualized the first digital computer, according to a Rock Island Library event summary. The Wallenberg Hall event will “retrace Dr. Atanasoff’s road trip to destiny that fateful night,” it says.
Atanasoff (1903-1995) needed a better calculator that could quickly solve advanced equations and when he tries to find such a machine, realizes that none exists, says a synopsis of the Eye Steel Film documentary. So Atanasoff decided he must build his own calculator.
Through archive material, reenactments, interviews with experts and first-hand witnesses, this documentary “shines a light to controversy over who was the actual inventor of the computer and an unknown part of our history,” the film website says. It was directed by Mila Aung-Thwin and Daniel Cross.
What happened that winter night?
An Iowa State bio on Atanasoff says that his obsession with finding a solution to the computing problem “built to a frenzy in the winter months of 1937. One night, frustrated