Did You Know?
Till the 19th century, 'computer' was a term for people designated to do the 'computing'! The history of computers, in the literal sense as 'computing machines', can be stretched back to abacuses, slide rules, and other similar calculators. The first programmable computer was created by Charles Babbage (December 26, 1791 - October 18 1871) in 1833.
Charles Babbage's father, Benjamin Babbage, was a rich businessman. Thus, young Charles went to many prestigious schools and was home-tutored before he went to Holmwood Academy in Enfield. This is where his romance with mathematics began.
Later, he went to Peterhouse, Cambridge for further studies. At Peterhouse he studied analytical philosophy and continued studying mathematics. He never graduated with honors, and was conferred an honorary degree in mathematics without examination.
Apart from being a gifted mathematician, Babbage was also a philosopher and an avid amateur cryptographer. He was also reported to be heavily influenced by the Indian system of logic.
Babbage noticed that the calculations made by the human 'computers', especially regarding logarithms, were often incorrect. This gave him the idea of a machine capable of doing the calculations, intrinsically without the human margin of error. Ada Lovelace, who helped Babbage program his machine, is considered as the first computer programmer in the world.
Interestingly, the history of programming itself doesn't begin with Babbage's 'Analytical Engine'. The first programmable device in the world was actually a loom! Invented by Joseph Marie Jacquard, the Jacquard Loom was the first ever programmable machine.
The programming in both, the Jacquard loom and Babbage's computer, was done through punched cards. Babbage also invented a mechanical forerunner of the printer as the output device for his machine.
The next leap forward in the history of computers came in the form of Konrad Zuse and John Atanasoff's contemporaneous but varied designs. Atanasoff built the first digital computer in the world using vacuum tubes -- the Atanasoff-Berry Computer, laying the groundwork for what would become one of the most useful and common devices in the world.
However, Atanasoff's computer was not programmable. On the other hand, Konrad Zuse had built a programmable computer, known as the Z3, which was electromechanical, i.e, analog.
Despite the respective shortcomings of their designs, Atanasoff and Zuse are both considered among the most important names in computer technology and, due to the disparity between their designs, among the inventors of the computer itself. George Stibitz is also considered among the inventors of the digital computer.
The numerous input, output and peripheral devices attached to modern computers were not part of these early designs. They were invented by the following scientists:
- Monitor (Cathode Ray Tube): Allen DuMont (1931)
- Mouse: Douglas Engelbart (1963)
- QWERTY Keyboard: Christopher Sholes (1867 - on typewriters)
- Scanner: Giovanni Caselli / Edouard Belin (1858 / 1913)
Charles Babbage couldn't help tinkering with his designs, always striving for the betterment of his devices. But constrained by the technology of the time, the analytical engine never got to the level of sophistication Babbage desired.
In 1991, a fully functioning model of his difference engine was constructed, showing the prognostic inventor's true brilliance. The model also promoted research into the possible applications of mechanical computing, which can be very helpful in situations where digital computers cannot tolerate the physical conditions.
In 2011 British scientists initiated a project to build the analytical engine to the best of Babbage's original designs, intended to be completed by 2021. That would indeed be a fitting tribute to the man who set the world on the ongoing journey of unimaginable technological advancement.