CO-INVENTOR OF THE WORLD’S FIRST ELECTRONIC DIGITAL COMPUTER
Major and graduation year: Electrical Engineering, BS ’39; Physics, MS ’41, PhD ’48
Natural talent: Alumnus Clifford Berry, co-inventor of the world’s first electronic digital computer, grew up in Gladbrook, Iowa, where his father owned an electrical appliance repair store. The extraordinary Berry learned about electronics from his father, and when other kids his age were in second grade, he had moved on to fourth grade. By age 11, Berry had built his first radio. That same year, his family moved to Marengo, Iowa, where Berry’s father had accepted a management position at Iowa Power Company.
A legendary partnership: Berry graduated from Iowa State College in 1939 with a degree in electrical engineering. His work and academic performance impressed Professor Harold Anderson, who introduced Berry to Professor John Atanasoff, beginning a partnership that would lead to the invention of the world’s first digital computer. By 1940, Berry and Atanasoff had created a working prototype, the Atanasoff-Berry Computer (ABC), with a grant of only $850. The ABC was the size of a desk, weighed 750 pounds, and contained over 300 vacuum tubes and a mile of wire. This early invention led to the development of the computers we use today.
Later career: When World War II began, the work on the ABC Computer came to a halt, and in 1941, Berry received his master’s degree in physics. The following year, Berry and his family moved to Pasadena, California, where he worked with the Consolidated Engineering Corporation (CEC) in a defense-related position. While working for CEC, Berry made special arrangements with Iowa State to receive his PhD in physics in absentia, and he completed the requirements in 1948. He became Chief Physicist at CEC in 1949 and Assistant Director of Research in 1952. He was made Director of Engineering of the Analytical and Control Division in 1959 and also served as its Technical Director.
Life cut short: In October 1963, Berry moved to Plainview, New York to become manager of advanced development at the Vacuum-Electronics Corporation. He died suddenly on October 30, 1963. In his short life, Berry was issued 19 patents in the area of mass spectrometry, 11 patents in various areas of vacuum and electronics, and had 13 patents pending at the time of his death. He was a member of the American Physical Society, American Vacuum Society, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Sigma Xi, Eta Kappa Nu (HKN), Pi Mu Epsilon, and Phi Kappa Phi.