The first use of the word "computer" was recorded in 1613, referring to a person who carried out calculations, or computations, and the word continued to be used in that sense until the middle of the 20th century. From the end of the 19th century onwards though, the word began to take on its more familiar meaning, describing a machine that carries out computations.[3]

The history of the modern computer begins with two separate technologies—automated calculation and programmability—but no single device can be identified as the earliest computer, partly because of the inconsistent application of that term. Examples of early mechanical calculating devices include the abacus, the slide rule and arguably the astrolabe and the Antikythera mechanism (which dates from about 150–100 BC). Hero of Alexandria (c. 10–70 AD) built a mechanical theater which performed a play lasting 10 minutes and was operated by a complex system of ropes and drums that might be considered to be a means of deciding which parts of the mechanism performed which actions and when.[4] This is the essence of programmability.

The "castle clock", an astronomical clock invented by Al-Jazari in 1206, is considered to be the earliest programmable analog computer.[5] It displayed the zodiac, the solar and lunar orbits, a crescent moon-shaped pointer travelling across a gateway causing automatic doors to open every hour,[6][7] and five robotic musicians who played music when struck by levers operated by a camshaft attached to a water wheel. The length of day and night could be re-programmed to compensate for the changing lengths of day and night throughout the year.[5]

The Renaissance saw a re-invigoration of European mathematics and engineering. Wilhelm Schickard's 1623 device was the first of a number of mechanical calculators constructed by European engineers, but none fit the modern definition of a computer, because they could not be programmed.

In 1801, Joseph Marie Jacquard made an improvement to the textile loom by introducing a series of punched paper cards as a template which allowed his loom to weave intricate patterns automatically. The resulting Jacquard loom was an important step in the development of computers because the use of punched cards to define woven patterns can be viewed as an early, albeit limited, form of programmability.

It was the fusion of automatic calculation with programmability that produced the first recognizable computers. In 1837, Charles Babbage was the first to conceptualize and design a fully programmable mechanical computer, his analytical engine.[8] Limited finances and Babbage's inability to resist tinkering with the design meant that the device was never completed.

In the late 1880s, Herman Hollerith invented the recording of data on a machine readable medium. Prior uses of machine readable media, above, had been for control, not data. "After some initial trials with paper tape, he settled on punched cards ..."[9] To process these punched cards he invented the tabulator, and the keypunch machines. These three inventions were the foundation of the modern information processing industry. Large-scale automated data processing of punched cards was performed for the 1890 United States Census by Hollerith's company, which later became the core of IBM. By the end of the 19th century a number of technologies that would later prove useful in the realization of practical computers had begun to appear: the punched card, Boolean algebra, the vacuum tube (thermionic valve) and the teleprinter.

During the first half of the 20th century, many scientific computing needs were met by increasingly sophisticated analog computers, which used a direct mechanical or electrical model of the problem as a basis for computation. However, these were not programmable and generally lacked the versatility and accuracy of modern digital computers.

Alan Turing is widely regarded to be the father of modern computer science. In 1936 Turing provided an influential formalisation of the concept of the algorithm and computation with the Turing machine. Of his role in the modern computer, Time magazine in naming Turing one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century, states: "The fact remains that everyone who taps at a keyboard, opening a spreadsheet or a word-processing program, is working on an incarnation of a Turing machine".[10]

The inventor of the program-controlled computer was Konrad Zuse, who built the first working computer in 1941 and later in 1955 the first computer based on magnetic storage.[11]

George Stibitz is internationally recognized as a father of the modern digital computer. While working at Bell Labs in November 1937, Stibitz invented and built a relay-based calculator he dubbed the "Model K" (for "kitchen table", on which he had assembled it), which was the first to use binary circuits to perform an arithmetic operation. Later models added greater sophistication including complex arithmetic and programmability.[12]

 
 
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