The Little-Known Inventor of the Computer, Faithful to His Bulgarian Roots

Look closer at this monument in a village in southern Bulgaria, and an inevitable question arises. Why is Prof. John Atanasoff, the American-born scientist credited with the invention of the first electronic digital computer, being honored here of all places?

john vincent atanasoff inventor of first computer
John Vincent Atanasoff at a press conference to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the court decision that officially recognized him as the developer of the first electronic digital computer. Photo: Bettmann / Getty Images

John Vincent Atanasoff was born in 1903 in Hamilton, New York, to Iva and Ivan Atanasov. His father was a native of Boyadzik, near Yambol in southern Bulgaria. “At only 13 years old, my father arrived with his uncle in the USA. My father constantly felt the desire to take his wife and children to Bulgaria, but he never succeeded,” John Atanasoff writes. About his Bulgarian roots, he says: “The Slavic heritage is in my blood. As a Bulgarian, I am also a restless, creative person.”

John Atanasoff: the Electronic Prometheus

In 1970, Atanasoff was bestowed with the Order of Saints Cyril and Methodius, First Class, Bulgaria’s highest scientific honor. Atanasoff would receive the United States National Medal of Technology, the highest U.S. honor conferred for achievements related to technological progress, only some 20 years later. “It was a strange anomaly. I was appreciated here, before the USA,” Atanasoff writes in a recently discovered thank-you letter to academician Blagovest Sendov, the once rector of Sofia University and Chairman of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.

Academician Blagovest Sendov dedicated his book “The Electronic Prometheus” to the great discoverer. He writes: “Even before Atanasoff there were computers, but without Atanasoff there would have been no information age, there would have been no Internet and no mobile phones.”

Returning to his roots

It was this bond – Atanasoff and Sendov had a long correspondence – that led to Atanasoff’s decision to visit his second homeland. In 1970, at an award ceremony bestowing him the Order of Saints Cyril and Methodius, the scientist spoke on a single topic – the invention of the computer. But his longing to visit Bulgaria didn’t end there. A second visit followed in May 1985, this time to his father’s birthplace, Boyadzhik.

“My mother was then the mayor of the village. She told me that the scientist was welcomed very warmly, with enthusiasm. As befits an inventor,” said the current mayor Elena Madjarova. She assumes that the scientist still has other relatives living in Bulgaria. Since 2003, the John Atanasoff Prize of the President of the Republic has been awarded to outstanding young Bulgarian researchers in computer science for achievements on a global scale. His name also circulates in space. The first asteroid discovered and explored by Bulgarians is named after him.

Community centers, streets, and schools across Bulgaria are also named after the inventor with Bulgarian roots. “To run a school whose patron is Prof. John Atanasoff is a responsibility and prestige,” says the director of the Vocational School of Electronics in Stara Zagora, eng. Nacho Nachev. Every year, the school marks its patron’s birthday – October 4th – as a holiday. In special classes, students learn about the scientist’s contribution to world science. Discussions and quizzes follow. The dedication to the lessons of John Atanasoff pays off, Mr. Nachev says with pride, as his graduates continue to work in the field in Bulgaria, the EU, or the USA.

Biserka Yovcheva, Professor Emeritus of the University of Shumen, who herself is training Bulgaria’s next generation of IT specialists, shares this sentiment. “We should not be indebted to anyone for the ingenious discovery but to continue his work with a creative spirit.”

Now that you are here, be advised that Central Europe has more computing geniuses to brag about. Try learning about Jack Tramiel, the inventor of the best-selling personal computer ever. Learn more about how computers got to know Central European alphabet quirks. Take a look at different videogames history, some serious (as “This War of Mine” depicting the civilian fate in brutal war), some less (as “The Witcher”, which map is a part of Polish identity, apparently. And make sure you subscribe to our newsletter to get more such stories in your inbox, every week.

Galina Ganeva

a journalist with experience working for some of the most influential Bulgarian publications. She mostly writes about the intersection of society and culture

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