In our first review of the history of the origin of computers, we came to a turning point on the way to the modern computer. The personality who made the leap from logarithmic tables and the first computing machines, those designed by Schickard, Pascal and Leibnitz, to a new approach and an upgrade to the previous method of solving mathematical problems, was English mathematician and father of computing, Charles Babbage, whose ideas were far ahead of their time.
Babbage designed a Difference
Engine – opening a way to the stars
Charles Babbage did not like the errors and shortcomings
he observed in previous calculations with calculating machines, so he decided
to go beyond the systems of these machines, which were based on logic and the approach
man used when computing.
He set up a new machine operation concept and first designed a model of
his Difference Engine, which brought significant changes to mathematical
In 1824, he received a gold medal from the British
Royal Astronomical Society “for his invention of an engine for calculating
mathematical and astronomical tables”, what he called a Difference Engine.
However, his success story does not end here, but it triggers a revolutionary
A turning point: the Analytical
Engine has all the elements of a modern computer
In 1833, Babbage got the ingenious idea that an
analytical engine could be built. In principle, it was the same as today’s
modern computers – surpassing its contemporaries by almost a hundred years. So,
how did this Babbage computer work?
This incredibly advanced device for calculating
mathematical operations had two parts, utterly equivalent in function to
today’s computers, namely: a storage unit for a thousand numbers with dozens of
digits – today’s memory – and a mill – today’s computer processing unit – in
which all arithmetic operations took place: addition, subtraction, multiplication,
These arithmetic operations were performed in a particular
order, and Babbage used punched cards to control these operations, such as those
used in Joseph Jacquard’s weaving machines. These cards were, in today’s sense,
a computer program. In what context? They exercised control over computer operations and
determined which arithmetic operation should be performed (addition,
subtraction, division, multiplication), how many times it should be performed,
where the operands or objects of a mathematical operation were and where the
result should be shown.
The ingenious idea that influenced
the course of history
This is the genius of Babbage’s invention. This is how
his machine differed from its predecessors: the machine was able to make
decisions based on its arithmetic operations, which is what almost all modern
We can only imagine how megalomaniacal this machine
would be if Babbage ever assembled it: the position of the gears in one gearbox
represented one number (but there were a thousand), one gearbox could only add
up a single-digit number, and so on. The only mistake Babbage made regarding this
analytical engine was that he did not assemble it (it was built later, and
today it is on display in a museum, weighing three tons). In doing so, he was
offered help in finding financial support for the assembly of the machine by
his excellent close collaborator, visionary, mathematician, computer scientist,
and programmer, Ada Lovelace, but he refused her help. What if he hadn’t?
The development of computers would have begun a
century earlier. But it turned out that Babbage’s vast mathematical mechanical
machine would remain forgotten until the mid-20th century. It was
then that Ada Lovelace’s notes on this machine were found by Alan Turing, a
pioneer of modern computing, and the era of computing flourished. That is how significant
the role of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace was in ushering in a new era in
human history. And just who was Ada Lovelace?
Ada Lovelace – the first computer
programmer and computer visionary
Ada Lovelace (daughter of the poet Lord Byron) was
fascinated by mathematics from an early age. Because she was very successful,
she began working with Charles Babbage after 1833 on the recommendation of her
tutor. Their relationship was not only professional, but they also became
friends. They were two notable personas for those times. How Babbage valued Ada’s
knowledge is shown by how he called her: “The Enchantress of Numbers.”
Babbage invented the Analytical Engine, and Ada wrote
down the details of that machine. She had the prescience to foresee and predict
what could be created and done with this machine – precisely what we are doing
with devices today. She also wrote programs to be implemented on the Analytical
Engine, making her considered the first programmer in history. Of particular
value is her translation of an article by the Italian mathematician Luigi
Menabres, to which she added a number of her findings. Because of her role and
achievements, Ada Lovelace is considered a symbol for women in science.
The push of electronic
Following Babbage’s Analytical Engine,
electromechanical computers were created at the end of the 19th century,
and a new milestone was the invention of electronic computers. The German
Konrad Zuse designed and perfected the first electronic computer between 1935
and 1941. His Z3 was the first automatic and functional program-controlled
Zuse’s Z3 computer worked on the same concept as
modern computers; a binary component was used for computing for the first time.
His Z3 was destroyed during World War II, but a museum in Munich made a replica
of the machine and have it on display.
New advances in computing,
most for the needs of war: tubes and circuits
Simultaneously with the rise of electronic computers,
which displaced analogue computers, mechanical and electromechanical elements
were replaced by electronic components: tubes and electronic circuits. Attempts
to build such devices were made before the Second World War, and the first
working computers were created during the war.
1944, the British designed the Colossus computer during the war to translate
the codes used by the Germans for their military communication into ordinary
language. It was mainly women that operated the Colossus computer. This
computer was the first programmable electronic digital computer, and it used
many vacuum tubes. The English built ten Colossus computers. The German devices,
the Enigmo and the Lorenz SZ, were attacked by the British with
At about the same time, the U.S. military assembled
ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator Analyzer and Computer), which was faster
and more efficient than the Colossus and, most importantly, the first in
history to meet all of Turing’s criteria for assessing modern-day computers
(aka Turing-complete). A program was entered mechanically; the programmers were
women known as ENIAC Girls.
ENIAC was able to multiply, divide, calculate roots
and was fully operational in 1945. It was a giant machine weighing 30 tons and
had 18,000 vacuum tubes, 1,500 relays, hundreds of thousands of resistors, capacitors,
All computer systems created during this time, which
contained vacuum tubes, are considered to be first-generation computers.
And so, we came right to the threshold of modern-day computers, which Alan
Turing set the standards for, and which were becoming smaller and more
practical and marked the modern digital age in human history. This will be
discussed in the following article.
Author: Lučka Tancer
Keywords: computers, history,
Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace,
This article is part of joint project of the Wilfried
Martens Centre for European Studies and the Anton Korošec Institute (INAK)
Following the path of digitalization in Slovenia and Europe. This project
receives funding from the European Parliament.
The information and views set out in this article are
those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the
European Union institutions/Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies/ Anton
Korošec Institute. Organizations mentioned above assume no responsibility for
facts or opinions expressed in this article or any subsequent use of the
information contained therein.