Computers before “computers”

25.02.2016 |

Episode #2 of the course Brief history of computers by Sudeshna Das

 

Yesterday, we learned that computers have been in existence for far longer than most of us would think. Today, we are going to find out about computers that fulfill the criteria of being machines.

Before we begin, let’s first think about what a machine is.

A machine is an apparatus or tool having several parts that perform a certain task. This task, in our case, is computing. The machines I am going to talk about today are called “mechanical computers”that is, computers that run without electricity.

The mechanical computer had a humble beginning with the abacus. That’s right! The same abacus that is used to teach number systems in elementary schools across the world is a basic, working computer.

Abacuses have been reported throughout history in multiple civilizations under different names. The earliest abacuses are said to date back to 2700BC from the Mesopotamian civilization.

 

Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/18474854@N00/2995708760/ Image is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License

The Abacus
Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/18474854@N00/2995708760/
Image is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License

 

In the 17th century AD, a large number of mechanical computers were invented. The simplest of these is probably the slide rule. You can think of them as glorified rulers or scales having a movable attachment that slides to give results etched on the scale.

Around this time, Blaise Pascal made the Pascaline, hoping to help his father in calculating taxes. Pascal’s calculator was soon improved by Gottfried Leibnitz to create the Leibnitz wheel. Thomas de Colmar, also inspired by the Pascaline, created the arithmometer. Pascaline not only heralded these two computing devices but is also said to be an inspiration for modern computer hardware.

A century passed, and mechanical computers saw a huge changethey became automated. The Difference Engine was conceptualized, which could perform calculus and is considered to be “the world’s first computer” by many. You might have heard of the person behind the Difference Enginethe “Father of Computing,” Charles Babbage.

Around this time, the Jacquard loom, a cloth-weaving device, started using punched cards to control weaving patterns. This inspired Babbage to propose the Analytical Engine, which used punched cards to take inputs. Ada Lovelace, who is called the “world’s first computer programmer,” also collaborated with Babbage on the Analytical Engine.

Unfortunately, due to lack of funds and other conflicts, Babbage was unable to complete the construction of his computers.

But don’t lose heart. Despite Babbage being unable to build either of his machines, computers kept on evolving. Tomorrow, we will find out what happened next.

Thanks for reading, and have a great day!

 

Recommended book

“Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age” by Michael A. Hiltzik

 

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