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ABC - may have had a User
George W. Snedecor (1882 -1974)

A friend linked to a reasonable sounding question -

Who is the first person to use a computer? > Wiki Answers > Categories > Technology > Computers > Computer History > Who is the first person to use a computer?


Cannot be precisely answered. Most likely:

- John Vincent Atanasoff
- Howard Aiken
- Konrad Zuse

There are many others working on computers in this time period. It could even have been some unnamed technician assisting in building one of the machines running some trivial test program to check out part of the hardware.

So, I
- asked John Gustafson, who led the reconstruction the ABC machine
- am about to ask Horst Zuse, son of Konrad Zuse
for comments.

John Gustafson responded
Jan 4, 2012
Hi Ed,

In rebuilding the ABC, we gathered as many interviews as we could with people who were still alive and had memories of the real machine. And our detective work led us to Clara Smith. Let me quote one of my own papers on the ABC from several years ago:

"Some have claimed that no one ever used the original ABC for production computing. We have found evidence to the contrary. The first three applications listed by Atanasoff are all statistical, and Atanasoff collaborated with the well-known applied statistician Snedecor at ISU. Publicity that resulted from our reconstruction effort led Clara Smith, a secretary in the Mathematics Department now living in rural Iowa, to contact us. She said one of her tasks was to hand-verify solutions to problems that Snedecor was sending to Atanasoff. It appears Snedecor sent a steady stream of small linear systems to the ABC for solution, and it would have been very well suited to regression, least squares, curve-fitting problems. Clara Smith verified some of the results for Snedecor to establish his confidence that the ABC was producing correct answers."

This is what convinced me that they weren't just "test problems"... there would be no reason to send a "steady stream" of problems to the ABC for solution. So if you were to delve into the papers published by Snedecor in the late 1930s and early 1940s, I suspect you'd find examples of small linear systems in them.

John G.

Well - looking up "Snedecor" in Iowa, yields !!
Snedecor founded the first academic department of statistics in the United States, at Iowa State University. He also created the first statistics laboratory in the U.S. at Iowa State, and was a pioneer of modern applied statistics in the U.S. His 1938 textbook Statistical Methods [1] became an essential resource: "In the 1970s, a review of citations in published scientific articles from all areas of science showed that Snedecor's Statistical Methods was the most frequently cited book."[2]
also BIOGRAPHY 17.1 George W. Snedecor (1882 -1974)
and Professional and Personal Glimpses of George W. Snedecor

I am forever amazed by Iowa State College/University in Ames, Iowa. One expects the students to be learning about artificial insemination of cows, but we find:
- the ABC machine, with its many 1sts
- the Cyclone computer, an early IAS 40 bit computer
and from University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa (John Gustafson & Steve Winegarden pointed out the difference ;-)
- the discoverer of the Van Allen belts above the earth
- ???

John Gustafson adds about the inventiveness of people raised or working in Iowa:
Snedecor was every bit a founder of modern statistics the way Atanasoff was a founder of electronic computing. You can imagine that agriculture is an excellent place to test out subtle correlations and then eke out a few more percent profit in the very low-margin business of farming. So it's not surprising that ISU was where the first academic statistics department was formed.

About the accomplishments of Iowa State University... The Van Allen belts are NOT an ISU discovery, but rather that of University of Iowa, one of the other three state schools. As you imagine, they don't take kindly to being confused with one another, but it happens all the time. :-) The University of Iowa is in Iowa City, about two hours east of Iowa State University.

Iowa in general produces far more fundamental technology and technologists than you'd ever imagine. Check out Lee DeForest... he invented the vacuum tube! The inventor of the communication satellite and the Picturephone was born and raised in Des Moines: John R. Pierce. The modern fax machine came from an Iowa State University inventor. And the real clincher... Robert Noyce, co-inventor of the integrated circuit and co-founder of Intel, born and schooled in Iowa (Grinnell).

Iowa produces a lot of good chemists, too. Wallace Corothers invented nylon. And neoprene. Born in Burlington. He was a real manic-depressive, eventually committed suicide (with chemicals, of course). Don Campbell invented catalytic cracking of petrochemicals... he was born in Clinton IA, and went to ISU.

But the trilogy I like best is DeForest-Atanasoff-Noyce. Wow. The vacuum tube, the computer, and the integrated circuit. Inventive place, Iowa...

If you have comments or suggestions, Send e-mail to Ed Thelen

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