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Berry, Clifford Edward

Published onJul 30, 2021
Berry, Clifford Edward

(April 19, 1918–October 30, 1963)

Quick Facts

Student Clifford Berry was hired by John Vincent Atanasoff as his assistant and together they are credited with inventing the computer. Berry would go on to create an analog computer that proved crucial in the advancement of mass spectrometry.


Source: University Archives, Iowa State University Library

Clifford Berry was the eldest of four children of Fred Gordon Berry and Grace (Strohm) Berry. Fred Berry operated an electrical appliance store in Gladbrook, Iowa, when the children were young. Clifford was an avid ham radio buff and keenly interested in electronics. In 1928 or 1929 the Berry family relocated to Marengo, a larger community where Fred Berry had taken a job with the Iowa Power Company. In Marengo, the Berry family's circumstances changed dramatically when Fred was shot to death by a disgruntled employee, leaving Grace a widow with four children. For financial reasons, the family remained in Marengo until Clifford entered Iowa State College (ISC) in 1934. At that point, Grace moved the entire family to Ames.

At ISC, Clifford was recognized for his academic achievements. In 1939 he received a B.S. in electrical engineering and began work on graduate degrees in physics and mathematics. Through a mutual friend, Berry met John Vincent Atanasoff, a respected electrical engineer and physicist, who hired the young man as an assistant for the 1939-1940 academic year. At the time he met Berry, Atanasoff was involved in a bold scheme to develop a calculating machine based on four interrelated concepts: digital electronic logic circuits, binary enumeration, serial calculation, and regenerative memory. Before Atanasoff, no one had integrated electronic elements into machine calculation as thoroughly as Atanasoff proposed to do.

The two men got along well from the beginning. "Berry was one of the best things that could have happened to the project," Atanasoff recalled later. "After he had worked for a short time, I knew that he had the requisite mechanical and electronic skills, but also that he had vision and inventive skills as well." Atanasoff entrusted Berry with assembling parts of the computer itself using plans drawn by Atanasoff. Berry is also credited with developing the electronic means by which base-10 numbers were entered into the computer for calculation in base-2 and then retrieved as numeric statements in base-10.

In December 1939 Atanasoff and Berry presented a prototype–named the "Breadboard Model" due to its small size–to test their key ideas. The test was successful, bringing another $850 to the project by way of a grant from ISC's Research Council, along with the promise of an additional $5,000 from the nonprofit Research Corporation of New York. Those awards would enable Atanasoff and Berry to finance construction and tests of the full-scale computer's component parts. Atanasoff and Berry worked in earnest on the full-scale computer from approximately January 1940 until June 1942. To support their patent application, they produced a technical paper titled "Computing Machines for the Solution of Large Systems of Linear Algebraic Equations," which described the architecture and functioning of their computer. The paper was duly forwarded to ISC officials, who apparently assured the inventors that the college would handle the rest of the patent application and also expedite processing of the Research Corporation funds.

The United States' entry into World War II halted Atanasoff and Berry's work at ISC. In the summer of 1942, both men left Ames to fulfill military obligations. At the time they left Ames, they assumed that the college would hurry their application to the patent office, speed receipt of the Research Corporation's $5,000, and help them get back to work quickly upon the conclusion of their military service.

But during and after the war, their careers took them in different directions. In 1942 Atanasoff took a position with the Naval Ordnance Laboratory outside Washington, D.C., and after the war he created a succession of profitable business firms. Berry's draft assignment sent him to the Consolidated Engineering Corporation in Pasadena, California, where he began a very successful career in corporate-sponsored research. At Consolidated, Berry was responsible in whole or part for dozens of patents. Atanasoff and Berry never worked together again. Nor does it appear that either ever heard from the Patent Office about their computer at ISC.

Ironically, Berry's greatest success as a computer engineer working on his own– after the Atanasoff years of 1939-1942–had to do with the development of a sophisticated analog device named the 30-103 Analog Computer. The 30-103, built by Consolidated Engineering during Berry's tenure there, proved crucial in the advancement of mass spectrometry.

Berry left Consolidated in 1963. In October of that year he was visiting Huntington, Long Island, prior to taking a position as director of advanced development at Vacuum Electronics, when his body was found lying dead in his hotel room. Although ruled by the coroner a "possible suicide," family and friends– including John Atanasoff–found it hard to believe that a family man in the midst of a flourishing career would take his own life.

Reprinted with permission: Silag, Bill. "Berry, Clifford Edward" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009.

Selected Sources

Mary Bellis, "Clifford Berry," draws on material gathered from Iowa State University sources from the Internet Web site, of which Bellis is a writer and producer. Jean R. Berry, "Clifford Edward Berry, 1918–1963: His Role in Early Computers," Annals of the History of Computing 61 (1986), 361, is helpful in tracing the comings and goings of Atanasoff and Berry in the critical years 1939–1942. Alice Rowe Burks, Who Invented the Computer? (2003), is a diatribe aimed at anyone who would dare to challenge Atanasoff and Berry's primacy in the history of computing, but it does contain interesting transcripts from the court case (see Atanasoff entry). Clark Mollenhoff, Forgotten Father of the Computer (1988), focuses on the trial, the computer, and Atanasoff's due, but does provide essential information about Berry's life and work.

Silag, Bill. "Berry, Clifford Edward" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 1 June 2017

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