Who Really Invented the Computer?

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If someone up and asked you “who invented the computer,” how would you respond? Bill Gates? Steve Jobs? Al Gore? Or say you’re more historically savvy, might you venture Alan Turing? Perhaps Konrad Zuse? Turing is the guy who, in the 1930s, laid the groundwork for computational science, while Zuse, around the same time, created something called the “Z1,” generally credited as “the first freely programmable computer.”

And yet all of the above could prove wrong, depending on what a British research team and millions of dollars turn up over the next decade.

(PHOTOS: A Brief History of the Computer)

The team’s question, as posed by the New York Times: “Did an eccentric mathematician named Charles Babbage conceive of the first programmable computer in the 1830s, a hundred years before the idea was put forth in its modern form by Alan Turing?”

You know, Charles Babbage? Born in 1791, died in 1871? Who attempted to build something called a “Difference Engine” during the first half of the nineteenth-century, a kind of mechanical calculator designed to compute various sets of numbers? Some argue that he, not Turing or Zuse, is the true father of the modern computer.

I worked for a company named after the guy back in 1994. You know, Babbages, the mall-based chain that eventually merged with Software Etc. before its parent company went bankrupt, was picked up by Barnes & Noble’s Leonard Riggio, and eventually folded into the existing GameStop chain. I remember our store had a silver plaque on the frontside of the cash-wrap with an etching of Babbages and a brief overview explaining who he was and why the odd-sounding name fit a store that, at the time, sold mostly PC-based products.

Babbage never built his Difference Engine—a mechanical calculator with thousands of parts—because of cost overruns and political disagreements, but the inventor passed on plans for its completion, and in 1991, the Science Museum in London actually built it (the printing component was finished in 2000). As suspected, it actually works.

But the Difference Engine could only do rote calculations and was incapable of checking its results to alter course. Babbage thus had bigger plans to construct something called an “Analytical Engine,” a monster-machine the size of a room with its own CPU, memory and capable of being programmed with punch cards, that he’d imagined but never had the wherewithal to build, beyond a trial piece, before his death. The problem: Where the Difference Engine’s plans were complete, the Analytical Engine’s were a work-in-progress.

Enter the Science Museum of London, which plans to build Babbage’s Analytical Engine a century-and-a-half later, and remedy the work-in-progress hurdle by putting the plans online next year and inviting passerby to weigh in. One of the central questions the project’s designed to answer is whether Babbage would have been able to actually build it at all.

If the answer’s ultimately “yes, he could have,” it could challenge the prevailing academic belief that Alan Turing, not Babbage, designed the first general purpose computer. And while the question today is purely academic, the machine’s construction, assuming it really is doable, should prove fascinating to watch.

LIST: Gadgets: Then and Now

Matt Peckham is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @mattpeckham or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

17 comments
BriB
BriB

People in this thread seem to be agreeing that somehow 'It doesn't count until you build it'.  That conceptualizing the computer is somehow less important than building one.  Nothing could be more incorrect.  It's actually the other way round.  Turing's greatest contribution, in my opinion, surpasses and outclasses even the blueprint, or the actual building, of any single computational device, whether we are talking about the very first one or the most recent one.  That contribution being the concept of what philosophers now call a 'Universal Turing Machine'.  That is, he demonstrated that it was possible to compute ANY COMPUTABLE FUNCTION with a device (or human) that functioned in a certain mechanical way, and he *detailed* that certain way.  The significance of that is absolutely staggering.  The modern computer, and any future computer for that matter, is merely *an* example of *a* Universal Turing Machine.  The concept is bigger than whatever devices instantiate the theory.  No matter how efficient they become or what they are ultimately made of.  What computers are all DOING is functioning in that certain way Turing outlined.  Maybe only computer scientists, philosophers' and mathematicians/logicians will understand that the the creation of the actual device, while very important, granted, is actually somewhat secondary in scope.


Maybe Babbage was on the right track with the Analytical Engine, probably I'd say, but we'll never know for sure.  

Datapax
Datapax

@BriB


Alan Turing is widely considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence.


John Atanasoff is best known for inventing the first electronic digital computer.


Source: Wikipedia

Datapax
Datapax

@BriB


Nobody here, on this thread, is saying that "It doesn't count until you build it" or that "conceptualizing is somehow less important than building a computer".


Everything you wrote is just your own opinion and not a fact, as you state in your own post!!! Anyway I do respect your opionion, but the facts point in another direction.


Alan Turing is a great scientist and his contributions are maybe the greatest.

Datapax
Datapax

@HannoPhoenicia 

Actually not "exactly" Alan Turing... as the first electronic digital computer was invented by John Atanasov in 1942, making it possible to store digits electronically, not mechanically as Turing and others where still working with mechanics. After that invention, known scientists in the area (including Alan Turing, ), developed the PROGRAMMABLE electroinc digital computer. Things they where not going to achieve if Atanasoff didn't invented the electronic digital computer. You can assume now that if John Atanasoff didn't invented the electroincal digital computer, there was not going to be any actually "computer in modern form" as you say!


What Alan Turing did, with the help of Tommy Flowers and Max Newman, was the invention of the first electronic digital PROGRAMMABLE computer in 1943 and in 1944 they used it at the Bletchley Park (a code-breaking center) to attack it's first German message with the Colossus Computer - the first PROGRAMMABLE computer (in the WWII)!!


So now you can assume that Alan Turing didn't invented the computer in it's modern form!

Turing is widely considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence, but not the inventor of the computer, and less in it's modern form!


Justo for the record now, the computer that is actually considered as the first stored-program computer, and is the real predecessor of the modern computer is the Manchester Small-Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM) nicknamed "Baby".

Followed by the Manchester Mark 1 in the early 1949, made into scrap in 1950 and followed by the first commercially available general-purpose electronic computer "Ferranti Mark 1".

The names here are Tom Kilburn and Freddie Williams (and others), but ofcourse they were not going to be able to build this machines if first of all John Atanasoff didn't invented the electronic digital computer and later Alan Turing invented the electronic digital programmable computer.


So you can assume now that the modern computer is rather an invention of many persons (scientists) and not Turings invention.


There is actualy a lot of history behind the invention of the computer, and there are so much persons involved in it's development that it has become so hard to specify a single inventor and say "Alan Turing invented the computer in it's modern form", this is just not certain.


If you don't agree with this, you just have been disproven by virtue of the fact that you just read my comment ;)


You can check all of this whenever you want, the information is all there, thanks to all those persons I mentioned above (and much others I didn't)

HannoPhoenicia
HannoPhoenicia

Alan Turing invented the computer in it's modern form, as we use it today. Today most of the worlds population use his invention every day of their lives, making him one of the most influential scientists in human history. Churchill stated he was essential in winning WWII. But most of us never heard of him and he was badly treated during his lifetime. 


If you don't agree with this, you just been disproven by virtue of the fact that you just read my comment. 


It's interesting that the other comments here are mindless and illiterate, despite the subject in the article. 

smitbran
smitbran

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(PPP)PrincePankajPatel

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(PPP)PrincePankajPatel

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(PPP)PrincePankajPatel
(PPP)PrincePankajPatel

@agentlei25 

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Andrew_M
Andrew_M

Does rather depend on what is meant by a computer, and at what stage it can be said to be invented (eg was the tv invented when it was an idea or when it was demonstrated,...). There's a nice summary on http://www.computerhope.com/issues/ch000984.htm

And of course there's the question what difference does having an answer give- to help at trivial pursuit, pub games or to promote discussion, reflection and as a source of ideas.

freeopenuniversity
freeopenuniversity

Many conceptualized computation but invention requires actually making a functional and practical device. Every computer we use today uses the Harvard Architecture or a decedent from it. The layout of Central Unit,  ALU, Instructions and Data that made mechanical and later electronic computation understandable, replicable and practical belongs to Howard H. Aiken.