The Atanasoff-Berry Computer was the brain-child of John Vincent Atanasoff (1903-1995). Atanasoff's first degree, from University of Florida, USA was in electrical engineering. His research for his PhD thesis, at the University of Wisconsin, USA was on "The Dielectric Constant of Helium" and this gave him a lasting insight into the horrors of serious computing using a hand calculator. At the end of 1930, he returned to Iowa State College as assistant professor in mathematics and physics. In 1936, he constructed a small analogue computer, the "Laplaciometer", he was not satisfied with its performance, but still could not think of a better solution.
One evening in the winter of 1937, totally frustrated, he got into his car and just drove off into the night. Nearly 200 miles later, he found himself by a road house in Illinois and went in for a drink. This was his eureka moment, relaxing with his drink, his mind wandering - suddenly all became clear and he knew what he had to do. The device would be electronic, it would use binary arithmetic and it would store numbers in capacitors. For simplicity's sake, the machine would be a serial device, even so, it contained 300 valves.
Back at the university, he successfully applied for a grant for his new project and hired an engineering student, Clifford Berry (1918-1963) to assist. Together they worked on the computer until 1941.
The ABC was the first electronic computer, but it was not fully automatic and it required an operator to operate switches to control the course of a calculation. Also it was never quite finished. Both Atanasoff and Berry had to leave the project and move on to war related duties. Later, when Atanasoff returned to Iowa, he found that the computer had been dismantled. Today, the capacitor drum is the only surviving relic of this historic device.
For more information about the ABC, its builders and the modern day project to reconstruct it, see ABC - external link