A BRIEF HISTORY OF COMPUTERS

Who Did What, What They Did, When They Did It, and Why

©1998 Robert Arnold

(Author's Note: This is a first draft. The information contained in this history was drawn from many sources, both published and verbal - consequently there may be occasional inaccuracies in some of the facts and dates. I've posted it here for the comments, corrections and criticisms of all who read it. If you find any errors or points you dispute, please let me know.)

(Author's Note #2: While you're in the neighborhood, you might find a little amusement poking around on the rest of the Warbaby site. If so, start here. BTW - This draft is not linked from anywhere on the Warbaby site. I initially put it up and sent the URL to people I know who are into computer history for their comments and crits. It has since made its way into the links of other computer history buffs. If you go to the main Warbaby site, you can't get back here from there, so if you want to return, bookmark it before you leave.)

 

IN THE BEGINNING THERE WAS BABBAGE

 

"It is unworthy of excellent men to lose hours like slaves in the labor of calculation, which could be safely relegated to anyone else if machines were used".

- Gottfried Liebnez

 

We owe the invention of computers to the fact that nobody likes to do math, not even mathematicians. Don't raise your eyebrows like that - it's true. Mathematicians don't like to do math. Oh, they like to think about math and discuss it with other math weenies, but not a one of them likes to sit down and do months of endless calculations with pencil and paper. As a result of mankind's general loathing for long columns of figures, mathematicians and inventors had been trying to build mechanical calculators since the Babylonians invented the abacus 5000 years ago.

The first mechanical calculator for which we have hard evidence is the Antikythera Mechanism from around 80 BC, a bronze device with gears and wheels for calculating the motion of planets and stars. It was discovered in 1901 in a shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera (Andikithira), but it was not until the 1950s that its purpose was fully understood. At first, scholars had difficulty believing that the ancient Greeks could have achieved such a level of scientific advancement, but there was no doubting the age of the Antikythera Mechanisim, and the more they studied it, the more its complexity was revealed and the less they could doubt its purpose. If you want to know the details, the June, 1959 issue of Scientific American carried an in-depth article by Derek J. deSolla Price.

A similar, but simpler mechanical calculator was described in a manuscript written by the Islamic astronomer al-Biruni about 1000 AD, and an example of this machine from the 13th century can be seen in the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford. Complex astronomical clocks were being built in China during the same period and several machines are known from descriptions written in the middle ages in Europe.

It's possible that Leonardo DaVinci could be credited with the creation of the first mechanical mathematical calculator in the 1500s. While there is no evidence that his machine was ever built, his notebooks contain drawings of a mechanical calculator, and working models have since been constructed from his designs.

In the early 17th century, Wilhelm Schickard designed a "calculating clock" (1623) which used a geared mechanism to help him multiply large numbers. No trace of his machine exists, but in a letter to his friend, the astronomer Johannes Kepler, Schickard wrote that his machine "...immediately computes the given numbers automatically; adds, subtracts, multiplies, and divides". A few years later, Blaise Pascal invented a gear-driven adding machine in 1642 which he called the Arithmetic Machine, and later, the Pascaline. It worked, but it cost more than the mathematicians it replaced, and no one could make it work right but Pascal, himself. He continued to refine his machines for the next ten years, creating about fifty more of the devices. It's amusing to note that, in 1658, Pascal created a scandal in mathematical circles when, under the phony name Amos Dettonville, he challenged other mathematicians to a contest and awarded the prize to himself.

In 1666, Samuel Morland also built a mechanical calculator that would add and subtract, and in 1674, Gottfried von Leibnitz used a stepped cylindrical gear to create a machine which he called the "Stepped Reckoner". It would not only add and subtract, but would multiply, divide and calculate square roots.

Not much progress was made for the next hundred years until Phillipp-Malthus Hahn built and sold a small number of calculating machines (1774) which were accurate to 12 digits. Three years later, the third Earl of Stanhope invented a multiplying calculator, but it was not until 1820 that a mass-produced calculator, Thomas de Colmar's Arithmometer, was successfully marketed.

In the 1850s, George Boole invented a mathematical system of symbolic logic that would later become the basis for modern computer design, but the first great innovation in the development of computers was George Babbage's Difference Engine.

Charles Babbage (1791 - 1871) is generally considered the grandfather of the modern computer. Of course, Babbage didn't actually invent the computer as we know it - that would have to wait until there was a more efficient way to produce electricity other than rubbing a cat or flying a kite in a thunderstorm - but he was the originator of the basic concepts of digital computing.

Babbage was an eccentric English gentleman scientist in the grand tradition of English eccentricity. Fascinated by numbers and statistics, he compulsively counted, measured and created tables for everything and anything. from "The Proportion of Sexes Among Our Poultry" to "A Table of the Relative Frequency of the Causes of Breaking of Plate Glass Windows" and the unsuccessful handicapping of horse races.

Born in Devonshire, England in 1791, Babbage was the son of a prominent Banker and, like most gentleman scientists of the time, grew up in privileged circumstances that allowed him to pursue his numerous numerical interests. He graduated Cambridge in 1820 and immersed himself in counting things. But counting things in those days involved a lot of paperwork and Babbage began to dream of a grand mechanical calculating machine to do the dirty work. In 1822 he presented a plan for his machine to the Royal Society, and the following year the government gave him an initial grant of £1500 (about $20,000 in today's money) to begin work on what he called his Difference Engine.

Six years later, the money had run out and the machine, two tons of precision brass and steel clockwork, was still not finished. Influential friends persuaded the Duke of Wellington to pitch in another £3000 and the government hired an engineer, Joseph Clement, to build the engine. Unfortunately, Clement's ego was equal to Babbage's, and their conflicts brought work to a halt when Clement resigned after two years work on the engine. Was Babbage discouraged? Did he consider abandoning his dreams? Never crossed this proto-geek's mind. Not only was he unfazed by this setback, he began to design an even more complicated calculating machine, the Analytical Engine. In designing this steam-powered behemoth, Babbage came up with most of the basic concepts of modern computing.

This steam-powered monster was to be a true parallel decimal computer which would calculate up to 50 decimal points and could store up to 1000 such numbers. It would also feature conditional control - which means that the instructions for the Analytical Engine could be executed in a specific order rather than numerical order. This probably doesn't sound like such a big deal, but it's one of the foundations of modern computing. These instructions were to be stored on cards with holes punched in them to represent numbers. Babbage got the idea for using punched cards to store information from the Jacquard loom, invented by Joseph Jacquard in 1803, which used punched cards to store and repeat weaving patterns.

Babbage continued to pour his own money into the project while petitioning the Prime Minister for more funds, but the government was understandably reluctant to finance the new machine until the first one was finished. By 1842, the government had invested £17,000 (the equivalent of more than a million US dollars in today's money) in the Difference Engine and Babbage had spent nearly as much of his own money and still the machine was unfinished.

The fact that it was still not completed didn't deter Ada King, Lady Lovelace, the daughter of the poet, Lord Byron from writing programs for it - thereby becoming the world's first programmer. Incidentally, there seems to be some confusion about her name among historians. As you may have noticed, there's a tendency among geeks to use several different names for the same thing - like "programs", "software" and "applications" - and it may have all started with Ada. Her birth name was Augusta Ada Byron and she married a man named William King, Lord Lovelace, but various biographers have called her Augusta Ada Lovelace, Ada Byron Lovelace, Ada Byron King, and Augusta Ada King. Since no one seems to agree on anything but the Ada part of her name, you can just call her Ada - everyone will know who you mean. She was as eccentric and brilliant as Babbage, whom she met when she was 17. She was impressed with his ideas, and a few years later when an Italian named Menabrea wrote a summary of Babbages's work (in French), Ada translated it and showed it to Babbage. He suggested she add her own commentaries and when she did, they were three times as long as the original article. Ada and Charles corresponded often, and she wrote a method for the difference engine to calculate Bernoulli numbers. It was the first computer program ever written, and that's why we fondly remember Ada.

Babbage continued to work sporadically on the difference engine at his own expense, but by 1850 he finally gave up hope of ever seeing it completed. The machine demanded a degree of machining precision on a large scale that was impossible with the state of technology at the time. But don't be too distressed by the thought that Charles Babbage spent his entire life in pursuit of a hopeless cause. His work on the Difference Engine did much to advance precision techinques in the machine tool industry and he was responsible for a number of important inventions, not the least of which was the cowcatcher for railroad engines (1838).

"So what's the big deal?", you say, "The guy futzed around for twenty years and never got anything to work but a friggin' cow-catcher". True enough, Bunky, but the real significance of Babbage's contributions to computer history is the fact that he invented the basic concepts of the logical structure of modern computers. The story has a happy ending, though, for Charles Babbage's dream was finally realized in 1990, when members of the Babbage Society completed a working Difference Engine based on his original plans.

You'd think that once Babbage started the ball rolling, other scientists and inventors would have chased after it, but it doesn't always work that way. Consider this: The process of preserving foods in tin cans was invented in 1810 , but it wasn't until 1854, more that 40 years later, that someone invented the can opener. Go figure.

The concept of the difference engine wasn't totally ignored, however. In 1853, a Swedish mathematician/inventor, Georg Scheutz and his son, Edvard, built a difference engine based on the work of their friend, Charles Babbage. While Babbage continued to be distracted by thoughts of bigger and better difference engines, the Scheutz's worked doggedly on their machine until they had it completed and working. Not only did it work, but would print out the results of its calculations, making it the first printing calculator in history. It was ultimately sold to an observatory in Albany, New York, and was given to the Smithsonian Institution in 1963.

Five years after Babbage's death, an obscure American inventor named George Bernard Grant constructed a difference engine of his own design and exhibited it at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Fair. His machine was eight feet wide, five feet tall, and contained more than 15,000 moving parts.

There's been some interesting fiction written on the subject of the difference engine. The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (Bantam, 1991), is a delightful intrigue set in an alternate 19th century. Michael J. Flynn's The Country of the Blind, is based on the idea that Babbage's engine worked and was taken over by a cabal that has used it ever since to influence the direction of society. SF author Roger Zelazny also wrote a mystery novel in collaboration with (dang, can't remember who) set in an alternate present in which Babbage's difference engine was a success and the world of technology is now based on steam-power and machinery. It's called (Damn! I can't remember the title and I can't find the book. If anybody knows, please email me).

The next milestone in the history of computing was Herman Hollerith's tabulating machine <<PIC>> which he invented for the U.S. Census Bureau in 1890. The machine he developed used punched cards to record census information about each citizen. Hollerith's inspiration for using punched cards came not from the pioneering work of Charles Babbage, as you might expect, but from watching a trolley conductor punching tickets. His machine made it easy and efficient to collect and sort data, and its success further inspired Hollerith to start his own company in 1901 to market his machines. He called his company the Tabulating Machine Company or TMC. Ten years later, TMC and two other companies merged and became the Calculating, Tabulating and Recording Company, or C-T-R. The company underwent one final name change in 1924 when it became International Business Machines, our beloved Big Blue, IBM.

Here's a trivia tidbit about punch cards - they were designed to be the same size as a US dollar bill because banks at that time filed money in drawers and there was an office furniture industry already producing dollar-size filing systems. Hollerith, like any good industrial designer, designed his punch cards so he could use off-the-shelf filing drawers.