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Who Invented the Computer?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
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  • Last Modified Date: 09 September 2016
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The question of who invented the computer cannot be answered with a single name. Throughout history, many different people have created devices that helped to lead to development of this valuable machine. These go far back into time, and many date the first important invention to the fourth century BCE when the Babylonians developed the abacus.

Other important concepts that would help lead to computers occurred centuries ago and include the adoption of Arabic numerals and the concept of zero, and in the 17th century, the development of the first mechanical calculators by Wilhelm Schickard and Blaise Pascal. Another milestone along the way was the plans created by Charles Babbage in the early 19th century to create a steam-powered “Difference Engine.” Though it was never built successfully, the intent of the device was to calculate astronomical tables. Babbage then turned to the idea of creating an Analytical Engine, which would be designed to solve all math problems.

Babbage’s ideas led to the writings of Augusta Ada Byron on the Analytical Engine. She clearly delineated some of ways in which modern computers now operate and discussed the concepts of data analysis and memory among other things. Another key thinker who needs to be credited is George Boole, who was responsible for Boolean algebra. The work of Babbage, Pascal, Boole, and Bryon is remarkable and far predates capacity to build machines with electronic components that could store memory.

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Development and common use of electricity led to many computer precursors in the 1940s. These include Konrad Zuse’s programmable calculator, and invention of the transistor by Bell Telephone. Some early models, like the Colossus, built in 1943, are vast machines that were used to break codes. Several other developments in the second half of the 20th century include the invention of the semiconductor and the integrated circuit.

The machines developed in the early 20th century either had limited programmability or couldn’t be programmed. The creation of what is called stored program architecture, a concept elucidated by John von Neumann, changed the way computers could store memory, however. Von Neumann’s ideas still influence operations of modern machines.

It could be said that the first computer that could store programs was the 1949 Electronic Storage Delay Automatic Calculator or EDSAC, assembled by Maurice Wilkes, though this is a debatable issue. From this point forward, many developers contributed to creating various computer types. Important milestones include the founding of companies like Xerox, Intel, and Fairfield in the late 1960s and early '70s.

In the early 1970s, several recognizable names come into play, including Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Steve Wozniak. These skilled inventors did much to develop personal computers in the form of PCs and Apples. By the 1990s, ownership of PCs became common as manufacturing and parts grew less expensive. Also, the development of technology like microchips and microprocessors helped to shrink the size of these machines so that they could easily be used in homes.

There’s no doubt this article leaves out the names of many along the way because there are so many thinkers and inventors who helped to develop the computer. There are even legal battles over who made the first one and who should be credited as the primary inventor. These seem overblown given the numerous collaborative efforts that eventually led to development of this most useful device.

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CoffeeJim
Post 5

The amazing part about all of this is that from these simple mechanical computers we now have a technology market with customizable computer hardware and component options that would probably never have been imaginable to Babbage and the likes.

I have a really fast gaming computer now that I like to think of as my modern day hot rod. Unlike my father's generation that built hot rod cars, I now have the urge and same sense of pride as assembling and overclocking my rig as they had with supercharging and racing their cars.

It is amazing how technology can change so rapidly and makes me excited to see the future.

sammyG
Post 4

I know that Al Gore invented the internet but I had no idea that Xerox had the role they did with developing the modern day graphical user interface. I am just kidding of course with the Al Gore part.

Computers are so complicated these days and it is so hard keeping up with every little new upgrade that I just use a machine until it stops working now. Often I will buy wholesale desktop computers just so I can save of the depreciation that the first year brings to the value of a computer. They are a lot like a car in that sense.

thumbtack
Post 3

@Ubiquitous, you probably are right about the learning that would take place with students actually crafting a Charles Babbage style mechanical computer but I don't think spending that much time on a subject so specific would be very useful unless it was in a college age course specially designed for very serious computer science majors.

On the other hand a more practicle and actually possible project for a computer class in the high school range to take on would to build a modern day desktop PC. This would give them the experience they would need to be come useful in today's information technology market. We could simply provide the classes with cheap used computer parts and they could build a variety of devices while learning about computer troubleshooting.

Ubiquitous
Post 2

While the author talks about the important role that Charles Babbage had in the invention of the compute I don't think that his role can be stressed as important enough. Even though his machine was technically a mechanical engine, it is the basis on this calculation device that we built the modern electronic computer.

I wonder if learning about building a mechanical computer like this in school would help children and high school age students learn more about the math that goes behind the machines.

It might take a class all semester long to learn the calculations let alone the technical ability to craft such a device but perhaps kits could be manufactured to provide the students a start with computer parts.

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