Chapter One

John Vincent Atanasoff’s father, Ivan, was born in 1876, in the midst of a period of climaxing political unrest. His parents were landed peasants in the Bulgarian village of Boyadzhik (about eighty miles from the Black Sea and perhaps halfway between Istanbul and Sofia). The Ottoman Empire was breaking up—Serbia had won independence in 1830 and Greece in 1832. Revolutionary agitation in Bulgaria, which intensified in the 1870s, culminated in the April Uprising of 1876, in which bands of Christian resistance fighters attacked Ottoman government offices and police enclaves. The attacks were followed by a campaign of reprisal on the part of the Ottoman government. Ivan’s father, Atanas, and his mother, Yana, were forced to flee their village, Atanas carrying the baby Ivan in his arms. In the course of the melee, Yana was knocked unconscious and Atanas was shot in the back. The bullet killed Atanas and creased the baby’s scalp as it exited through his father’s chest, but Ivan and Yana survived (though American translator Eugene Schuyler estimated from his own observations at the time that fifteen thousand Bulgarians were killed, and five monasteries and fifty-eight villages—including Boyadzhik—were destroyed in these attacks). The revolution was put down for the time being and the Ottoman response was widely publicized and deplored, and then in mid-1877, Russia attacked the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans with the express purpose of liberating the Balkan Christian states and regaining access to the Black Sea that Russia had lost in the Crimean War. The conflict was short—the autonomy of Bulgaria was recognized in the Treaty of San Stefano, signed on March 3, 1878. Among the Russian cheerleaders for the war were Ivan Turgenev, who thought Bulgaria should be liberated, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who hoped to unite all Eastern Orthodox churches under the Russian church.

Yana subsequently married a local cattle breeder who could afford to educate little Ivan, while her brother made contact with American missionaries, who helped him get to America. When this uncle returned on a visit to Bulgaria in the late 1880s, young Ivan, now thirteen, decided to go back to America with him. Yana financed the trip by selling a piece of land that Atanas had left her.

At Ellis Island, Ivan Atanasov’s name was changed to John Atanasoff. Although he had a bit of money, it was only enough to rent a room in New York City so that he could work at a series of menial restaurant and handyman jobs while he improved his English. Life was difficult and jobs were scarce, though he did manage to keep a chicken in his room for a while. A charitable local minister he met through his uncle found him a place as a student at the prestigious Peddie School, in Hightstown, New Jersey (not far from Princeton), where he worked hard and did well, but upon graduation, his education at first seemed to be of little use—his uncle had returned to Bulgaria, and there were no more family funds forthcoming. He was homeless for a while, working temporary jobs, but then he related his tale to a Baptist minister named Cooke, who encouraged him to seek the aid of various local congregations. Once he had accumulated $200 in savings and gifts, Pastor Cooke helped him find a spot at Colgate, at that time a Baptist-affiliated college.

At Colgate, John met the sister of two brothers who were fellow students, a girl named Iva Purdy, a descendant of early settlers in Connecticut and generations of farmers in upstate New York. Iva, herself a high school graduate with a talent for mathematics, was teaching in a nearby school. After courting Iva, John married her at Christmas 1900 and then graduated from Colgate the following June. John Vincent was born on October 4, 1903.

Although John had taken his degree in philosophy, he found work in industrial engineering at the Edison power plant in Orange, New Jersey. When work at the plant (possibly chemicals used in the manufacture of lightbulbs) seemed to be adversely affecting his health, he moved on to the power plant in Utica, New York, then to the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad electrical plant in Hoboken, New Jersey. At night, he took correspondence courses in electrical engineering. Four children had been born by the time John Vincent was nine—two who lived and two who died in infancy. John and Iva came to feel that the family was not thriving because, in addition to John’s own respiratory problems, the children were suffering repeated bouts of illness. They decided to move to the newly founded town of Brewster, Florida, on the west coast, some thirty miles as the crow flies southeast of Tampa, where American Cyanamid was in the process of exploiting local phosphate deposits. John got a good job, and the children’s health improved. John Vincent attended school at the local two-room schoolhouse.

Iva Atanasoff gave her oldest child considerable freedom, both of action and of thought, in part because other children were born in Florida (eventually there were seven) and she oversaw a large garden in addition to the household. But Iva also retained her interest in intellectual pursuits—according to family stories, she liked to sit in her rocking chair and read while John and his younger brothers and sisters played about her. By the time young John got to school, he already knew how to read and calculate, and at first he was a difficult pupil—he was used to following his own agenda. Since he had no trouble doing his work, he finished ahead of the other children, and once he had done so, he made himself a “pest,” according to his younger sister. But he was an inconvenient pupil also because he was inquisitive and knew more than many of his teachers. He was easily offended, especially by teasing and slurs, and he didn’t mind getting into fights. Some teachers handled him well and some did not, but however they handled him, his pronounced eagerness to learn persisted—he eagerly explored both the countryside and whatever books he could get hold of.

In 1913, when he was not quite ten, John helped his father wire their home for electricity (subsequently, they wired the homes of some of their neighbors, too). In 1914, John mastered the owner’s manual of his father’s new Ford Model T, and at eleven he was driving it. John read his mother’s books, including Ruskin and Spenser, and he read his father’s books—including a manual on radiotelephony (wireless sound transmission). When his father ordered an up-to-date slide rule, then decided that he didn’t really need it, John mastered it within a couple of weeks and thereupon became, in his own mind, a nascent mathematician. He found his father’s old college algebra textbook and began to work his way through it. What he could not understand (differential calculus, infinite series, logarithms) Iva explained to him. During this period, he learned about various number systems other than the decimal system—this unusual familiarity with nondecimal ways of counting and calculating and his practice using them was what would eventually distinguish his ideas about calculators from those of his contemporaries.

John liked to make things and to demonstrate his skills—in sixth grade, because some older girls who had already finished elementary school were gathering in the back of the classroom and crocheting, he learned to crochet. He pursued his project at school, no longer undaunted by teasing but stimulated by it—he flaunted his work and bragged about his skills until the teacher banned crocheting at school. He soon learned to sew. In fact, John Vincent Atanasoff seemed to see every new idea or object as an opportunity to explore and master whatever his world had to offer. Atanasoff’s parents gave him plenty of freedom, encouraged his enterprise, and helped him pursue what he wanted to master. They also made a stable life for him in an out-of-the-way spot where there was plenty to do and plenty of space to do it in.

The Atanasoffs’ life in Brewster was not untroubled—the Atanasoff family, with its strange name and alien ways, was sometimes harassed and their property vandalized. John Atanasoff encountered resentment at work. The larger culture seethed with prejudice and vigilantism. A local Catholic lawyer was run out of the area. Between 1909, when the Atanasoffs arrived in Brewster, and 1920, more than fifty black people were lynched in Florida—Atanasoff himself remembered witnessing a lynching as a teenager, in Mulberry (about eleven miles north of Brewster), though that one is not attested to in Ralph Ginzburg’s 100 Years of Lynchings.

In 1912, John and Iva purchased a 155-acre farm southwest of Brewster, which included a 30-acre orange grove and 120 acres of timber. For young John, the farm meant more scope for exploration and, in particular, endless chances to not only repair the machinery used on the farm, but to take it apart and improve its design. The boy became interested in farming itself—he subscribed to Wallaces’ Farmer (the publication founded in Iowa by the grandfather of Vice President Henry A. Wallace) and tried the latest farming techniques. Since John Atanasoff worked full time, young John became the one who organized and ran the farm. In the meantime, he graduated from the high school in Mulberry, completing his coursework in two years, at fifteen. The teachers at the high school did not attempt to control Atanasoff’s independence or restrict his education—they encouraged his curiosity and his enterprise. Once he had graduated, Atanasoff got himself certified to teach math classes and saved the money he earned toward his college education, which he already knew would be in math and science. He worked for a year as a phosphate prospector and entered the University of Florida in 1921, just before his eighteenth birthday.

The University of Florida is and was a land-grant university. The Morrill Act of 1862, under which both the University of Florida and Iowa State College were founded, was written for a specific educational purpose: “to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.” In other words, the land-grant colleges were intended to focus on the useful. In what is perhaps the paradigm of public higher education, the three state-funded colleges in Iowa are an example of this idea of the distinct (and class-based) purposes of higher education: postgraduate degrees are offered by the medical school, the art school, the music school, the graduate school, the law school, and the business school at the University of Iowa. Postgraduate degrees in engineering, agriculture, veterinary medicine, design, and industrial engineering are offered at Iowa State (though these categories have gotten somewhat less distinct in the last twenty-five years). The third state-funded school was, until 1961, Iowa State Teachers College, a normal school. Although the system of higher education was not as distinct in every state as it was in Iowa (the University of Wisconsin and the University of Minnesota have all types of programs on the same campus), the land-grant colleges retained their focus on disciplines applicable to the health and wealth of the individual states. The Morrill Act promised to fund these colleges by granting each state thirty thousand acres of federal land, the proceeds of which would go to the colleges. The land did not have to be inside the state—New York State was granted land in Wisconsin, for example.

The Morrill Act did not originally cover Florida, because the Confederate states had seceded from the Union before the passage of the act, but the act was extended in 1890 to the former Confederate states. Most of these states used money from the act to fund the useful arts at the main campus and to fund the establishment of separate, segregated black colleges. In 1905, Florida Agricultural College, in Lake City, was moved fifty miles south to Gainesville and renamed the University of the State of Florida. At the time of John Vincent Atanasoff’s matriculation, the university was all male and all white—women students went to Florida Female College, in Tallahassee, and black students of both sexes went to Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes, also in Tallahassee. Related to the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 was the Hatch Act of 1887, which funded (also through land grants) the establishment of agricultural experiment stations in each of the states. These stations were normally attached to the land-grant colleges, broadening their practical mandate.

By the time he began college, Atanasoff knew he wanted to study physics and to be a physicist. He was familiar with and excited by Einstein’s theories and by the other work being done in the field, but no physics major was offered at the university, so he went into electrical engineering, the most theoretical scientific major offered. In Gainesville, Atanasoff was surrounded by opportunities to think, but also opportunities to do. Requirements of the electrical engineering major included building models and projects, so Atanasoff took classes in machine shop, forge and foundry, and electrical mechanics. He also pursued his earlier interest in radio communication. He tutored students for money and worked summers—one summer in Jacksonville, he found a lucrative job surveying the city streets. He was, in short, brilliant, eager, enterprising, highly directed, and hardworking. Just as John Atanasoff’s life had been almost a paradigm of the classic immigrant story, John Vincent Atanasoff’s life was almost a paradigm of the classic ambitious American tale—a Tom Sawyer–like boyhood followed by a Horatio Alger–style self-funded and successful career.

But the elder Atanasoff’s life remained difficult—while John Vincent was away in Gainesville, John and Iva decided to sell the farm and move to Bradley Junction, a town between Brewster and Mulberry. One night when John was coming home, he was attacked by a mob clad in white robes and nearly killed. He was saved by the wife of the Cyanamid plant manager, who heard the ruckus and ran outside with a shotgun. The mob was revealed to be made up, in part, of neighbors whose children Iva tutored in math and, in part, men who worked for John at the plant, all apparently motivated by the strangeness of John’s name and origins. The attackers broke John’s leg and ribs, and there were so many internal injuries that John was bedridden for weeks; John Vincent had to return from college to help take care of him. Although the attack was foiled, the younger Atanasoff children suffered for years from the xenophobia, and probably the envy, of the local population.

Atanasoff’s childhood and adolescence constitute a case history of creativity—of the sometimes overlapping psychological characteristics of creative people enumerated in R. Keith Sawyer’s Explaining Creativity. According to family anecdotes, the young Atanasoff seems to have exhibited every trait Sawyer cites, from self-confidence, independence, high energy, and willingness to take risks, to above-average intelligence, openness to experience, and preference for complexity. In the crocheting, we even see what Sawyer calls “balanced personality”—that is, a willingness to do things that are considered the province of the opposite sex. The key component of a creative mind that Atanasoff consistently showed as a child and a young man is what Sawyer calls “problem finding”—that is, the ability to productively formulate a problem so that the terms of the problem lead to a solution. Young Atanasoff’s pleasures on the family farm seem precisely those of “problem solving” evolving into “problem finding.” When a fence required fixing or a machine broke down or work needed organizing, he didn’t figure out how to return things to their original configuration—rather, his goal was to understand how the original operated and then to streamline and improve those operations, as when he took apart and repaired farm machinery, or when he tried new cropping ideas without consulting his parents, or when he organized his siblings’ chores, not forgetting to include a lesson or two for them in biology or mechanics.

In 1925, when Atanasoff graduated from the University of Florida, he had the highest grade average ever recorded up to that point at the university. He applied to master’s programs in physics, his true love; the first to respond with offers of admission and aid was Iowa State. Atanasoff accepted the offer and made his plans to go to Ames. Sometime later, he received an offer from Harvard, but he turned it down. He was to remain in the land-grant system, and his tenure there was to profoundly shape his career.

Iowa Agricultural College was founded in Ames in 1856, ten years after Iowa statehood. Ames lies at the southern end of a geological feature known as the Des Moines Lobe, deposited by the Wisconsin ice sheet when the glaciers retreated ten to fifteen thousand years ago. The landscape is open, frequently marshy, and pockmarked by small lakes. For this reason, north-central Iowa was somewhat slower to be settled than eastern Iowa; when settlers first entered the Des Moines Lobe region, they found tall-grass prairie that stretched for hundreds of miles. But the land proved exceptionally fertile, and though the climate was marked by winds and weather extremes, Iowans understood very early that farming was the future of the state—the pre–Morrill Act state college included a model farm. In 1862, the Iowa legislature was one of the earliest state legislatures to accept the terms of the Morrill Act. The first undergraduates, a class of twenty-four men and two women, entered in 1869 and graduated in 1872; the Iowa Experiment Station was set up along with the college in the 1860s (by contrast, the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station was set up in 1875 and the University Farm of the University of California was not set up until 1905).

By the time Atanasoff arrived in 1921, Iowa State was already famous as the alma mater of Carrie Chapman Catt, a prominent nineteenth-century feminist, and of George Washington Carver, a botanist and inventor, the first black student at the college and the first black researcher at the Experiment Station. An 1893 alumnus, Bert Benjamin, had invented the Farmall tractor, which was the first tractor that could be used to perform all farm operations.

Atanasoff’s stipend for teaching undergraduate math classes at Iowa State for the school year 1925–26 was $800, enough to allow him to find a room on Knapp Street south of campus. The campus was then and is now self-contained but spacious. Although a train ran between the campus and Ames, Atanasoff bought himself a bicycle to get around. At first he did his work and kept to himself—according to his granddaughter, Tammara Burton. “Hurrying toward his destination, he typically wore an expression of severe concentration as he worked to solve the equation that was of greatest interest to him at the moment. With his foreign name, his unfashionable clothes, and his dark unruly hair, he soon earned the nickname around campus of ‘The Mad Russian.’ ” In addition, he spoke in an alien southern drawl as a result of his childhood in Florida. But he impressed his professors, soon gaining a reputation for brilliance. He taught his math students and took his own courses, and these activities were time-consuming. However, Knapp Street was not far from Fraternity Row on Ash Avenue, and it was there, at a mixer for southern students, that he met Lura Meeks, who had come to Iowa State from Cheyenne, Oklahoma, a place at least as wild, in its way, as Florida. Lura was somewhat older than John but still an undergraduate, putting herself through college. Her personality was in many ways the female counterpart to John’s—she had always played the piano, painted, done wood carvings, and written poetry while working on the family farm and doing chores on neighboring farms for cash. At Iowa State, she was on the tennis team and the swimming team, and she was a devoted reader, like Iva. Herself intelligent, energetic, and enterprising, she recognized both John’s talent and his ambition. They were married shortly after he received his master’s degree in physics, in June 1926. Atanasoff then accepted a position at Iowa State for $1,800 per year, teaching mathematics and physics while taking more classes to prepare for his doctoral studies at another land-grant institution, the University of Wisconsin.

Things did not go smoothly in the early months of the marriage. Lura left for Montana, where she had a contract to teach high school, but not wishing to be away from John, she gave up her job and came home in November; John’s contract with Iowa State was not completed in the winter of 1927 until after classes at the University of Wisconsin had already commenced. Money was tight, and Lura got pregnant. John, however, was not much daunted—after he arrived in Madison in the winter of 1927, he began his classwork, knowing that he would soon catch up. The only professor who was offended by this plan was the professor of quantum mechanics, John Hasbrouck Van Vleck. Quantum mechanics is the science that predicts what happens in systems, and in the 1920s it was the most up-to-date and exciting field in physics.

Professor John Hasbrouck Van Vleck was only four and a half years older than his graduate student, but he was from a much different background—his grandfather was an astronomer and his father was a mathematician. He had grown up in Madison and completed his degrees at Harvard at the age of twenty-four. By the time he encountered Atanasoff (and his southern drawl), he had already taught at the University of Minnesota. After the University of Wisconsin, he would return to Harvard. He would eventually win the Nobel Prize in 1977, along with Philip Warren Anderson and Sir Neville Francis Mott (“for their fundamental theoretical investigations of the electronic structure of magnetic and disordered systems”). Though only in his late twenties, Van Vleck already possessed the means to begin a serious art collection. He did not want to allow Atanasoff to enter his class late, and he did not think Atanasoff would be able to do the work. Owing to tight finances, though, John and Lura could not afford to stay an extra semester in order for John to take the course from the beginning. In a replay of his behavior in elementary school, John attended lectures, spoke up in class, asked questions, and, perhaps Van Vleck felt, made himself a pest. At any rate, Van Vleck felt no hesitation about denigrating Atanasoff’s performance and often appended remarks to his answers such as, “If you had been here in the first half of the semester, you wouldn’t have to ask that question.” The course was so difficult that only a few of the students completed it—Atanasoff told Clark Mollenhoff, the Des Moines Register writer who wrote Atanasoff: Forgotten Father of the Computer in the late eighties, “There were perhaps twenty-five graduate students in the class, and … only five even bothered to take the final examination. I wrote for seven hours on that test, and when Dr. Van Vleck called me in later he told me it was one of the best and indicated that it was the best, but made no comment of congratulation.” Van Vleck was not the last scientist to fail to appreciate Atanasoff.

Since Atanasoff hoped to specialize in quantum mechanics, Van Vleck was his assigned major professor, but Van Vleck went on leave in 1929–30, so Atanasoff worked under Gregor Wentzel, visiting from Zurich, where he had succeeded Erwin Schrödinger (who was to receive the Nobel Prize in 1933 for his contributions to quantum mechanics) in the chair for theoretical physics. Although he was only a year older than Van Vleck, Wentzel was more sympathetic to Atanasoff and oversaw Atanasoff’s dissertation, “The Dielectric Constant of Helium.”

Atanasoff’s dissertation and his degree were in theoretical physics, his long-standing passion. The “dielectric constant” or “relative static permittivity” is a practical measurement, the ratio of the electric field in a vacuum to the electric field in a medium. He did the calculation by using the governing partial differential equation of quantum physics, the Schrödinger equation. The thesis was concerned only with theory and was not an experimental measurement (this had already been done by someone else). Atanasoff’s calculation, accurate to within 5 percent of the measured value, used a mathematical technique called the Ritz variational method. The solutions to the linear equations he had to solve so laboriously were coefficients of the approximate wave functions he used in the variational calculation. The thesis result was important because it showed that the answer was obtainable by theoretical quantum mechanics. His calculations were about the probability that electrons in helium would act in a certain way when subjected to an electric field. But as always, his work pointed in more than one direction: what he was calculating demonstrated the utility of quantum mechanics as applied to atomic structure, but more important, as it turned out, the difficulty of making his calculations forced him to encounter, over and over, the flaws of modern computing machines.

Atanasoff was awarded his PhD by the University of Wisconsin in July 1930. He was twenty-six years old and had been married for four years. His daughter, Elsie, was just over a year old and Lura was expecting a second child. His first job offer—assistant professor of mathematics and physics—came from Iowa State. His salary was to be $2,700 dollars per year, $900 more than he had made as a student teacher after receiving his master’s. Jobs in physics were scarce, and Atanasoff once again committed himself to the Iowa State position, only to be subsequently offered a job at Harvard that he once again could not accept.

In 1929, when John Vincent Atanasoff was working on his PhD in physics at the University of Wisconsin, Alan Turing, seventeen (born June 23, 1912), was sitting for his Higher School Certificate examination. The examiner who evaluated his mathematics paper wrote, “He appeared to lack the patience necessary for algebraic verification, and his handwriting was so bad that he lost marks frequently—sometimes because his work was definitely illegible and sometimes his misreading his own writing led him into mistakes.” He had to take this examination three times and switch his major subject from science to mathematics in order to gain acceptance (with a scholarship) to his preferred school, King’s College, Cambridge.

He was already an interesting young man. Turing’s parents, Julius and Ethel, were both born into the English civil service in India. Ethel Stoney’s father was in the medical corps; she was born in Madras and lived most of her life (with occasional trips back to England) in Coonoor. Julius served as a peripatetic official, head assistant collector, near Madras. They met on a ship returning to England by the eastern route, stopping in California. Part of their courtship was a transcontinental journey across the United States, with a sojourn in Yellowstone Park. Alan was born in London in 1912, while his parents were once again on leave. Alan had one older brother, John, born in 1908. Alan was born in Paddington, and then the family settled in the southeast, near Hastings. When Alan was nine months old, his father returned to India. When he was fifteen months old, Ethel followed Julius, leaving John and Alan in the care of a retired army couple. Both parents went back and forth between India and England for the next five years, sometimes together and sometimes separately. They never had a house of their own in England.

Alan was quick as a child and eccentric—he taught himself to read in three weeks, and he had no trouble expressing his opinion. He tended to get caught up in observing things—serial numbers, daisies—but failed to grasp other apparently simple ideas, such as the fact that Christmas came at the same time every year. He was not indulged, and his failure to conform to English (and, no doubt, military and bureaucratic) standards of behavior often led to arguments and tantrums. Descriptions of Alan’s childhood seem to leap out of the writings of Oliver Sacks. The boy was busy, untidy, inventive, inquisitive, and obviously brilliant, but the Turings were bureaucrats—several generations had served as officials in British India. Alan’s mother’s family, the Stoneys, was known to be inventive and commercial—one great-uncle designed sluice gates for water-level control on the Thames and other rivers, while his grandfather worked as chief engineer on the Madras and Southern Mahratta Railway and also designed a type of indoor fan. As bureaucrats, they had status but little money. They had expectations, however, and a class identity to maintain. Much of this maintenance depended on conforming to strict standards of behavior and attending the proper sort of school. Even though Alan readily learned such things as long division and also showed an eager interest in the “underlying principles” of every operation (according to his mother), he did poorly on exams and was always more or less unpopular. He was also sloppy. According to his brother, “It was all the same thing to him which shoe was on which foot.”

Like the young Atanasoff, Turing was enterprising, opinionated, and inquisitive—in Scotland, at age six, he located a beehive by observing where the flight paths of the bees intersected and gathered honey for the family tea. Like Atanasoff, he did not fit into school very well—he pursued his own projects (such as origami and maps), but unlike Atanasoff, he did not care enough to do the assigned work as well as his own projects (or he found it difficult because of such things as poor handwriting). He was terrible at sports and later said that he learned to run fast in order to avoid the ball.

Like Atanasoff, he learned things on his own. One of his favorite books was one he received at the age of ten—Natural Wonders Every Child Should Know, by Edwin Tenney Brewster. In this book, Brewster set out a picture of the natural world that was organized and understandable, as well as scientific and machinelike. Brewster describes the process of evolution and says of the human body, “It really is a gas engine, like the engine of an automobile, a motor boat, or a flying machine.” This machine analogy would prove seminal in Turing’s later work. About the same time, chemistry became his passion, and his family let him pursue various experiments in the basement of the house they were living in.

As Alan approached the age when it was necessary for the Turings to find a public school for him, the problems posed by his eccentricities became more pressing. He took an entrance exam for the school his brother was attending, and was admitted, but John thought life there would be too difficult for him. Eventually, he ended up at the Sherborne School. It was not a good choice. School was not, in the expressed opinion of the Sherborne headmaster A. J. P. Andrews, a place for learning information or developing one’s capacity for critical thinking, but rather where the English class system was to be reinforced and boys to be shown their place within it.

Andrew Hodges writes in his biography that in his first year at Sherborne School, “Alan had no friend, and at least once in this year he was trapped underneath some loose floorboards in the house day-room by the other boys. He tried to continue chemistry experiments there, but this was doubly hated, as showing a swottish mentality, and producing nasty smells.” Alan Turing was from long lines of inventive people on his mother’s side and his father’s side, and he showed a ready and determined fascination with practical things from earliest childhood, but he was repeatedly diverted from these interests by the class system that he was born into and the educational system that was his only route to social respectability. Although, like Atanasoff, and in the manner described by creativity researcher R. Keith Sawyer, Turing persistently looked for problems to solve and then solved them, and also exhibited self-confidence, independence, high energy, willingness to take risks, above-average intelligence, openness to experience, and preference for complexity, his world was not one where he could cultivate these qualities. Iva and John Atanasoff seem to have accepted the fact that, as painful as it could sometimes be to live at the periphery of their society, it was also freeing, and it gave their children valuable experience not only in getting things accomplished, but also in flouting received opinion. The same mode of thinking, and course of action, seems not to have been available to the Turings, and Alan spent his entire youth being balked in his attempts to go his own way. One telling detail is that when he did try his chemistry experiments at Sherborne, they were invariably found and thrown away. The result was that he switched his field, and his thinking, from practical physics to pure mathematics, but he never gave up his interest in machines.

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