Following the path of digitalization in Slovenia and Europe: The history of the origins of computers is a story of the dizzying progress of society

Computers are becoming more and more indispensable in our daily lives. Their role and importance will undoubtedly increase in the future. Brand new fields of activity open up based on digitalisation and new ways of working, which we do not yet know how to define in detail. Today’s generation of young people is already much more involved in digitalisation than their parents were; that is how rapid the development of computers is. With such a speed, digitalisation is advancing.

Sometimes it seems that modern computers and smartphones have been with us since time immemorial, but if we take a closer look, they have only been with us for a short time. In November this year, we celebrated an important milestone in Slovenia: 30 years ago, Slovenians got their first internet connection. The internet has brought significant changes and challenges to our society; likewise to all other communities that use this invention, one of the most powerful in human history. 

This invention has changed everything – not only in the field of work but in all areas of human life. Suddenly, a vast amount of data, information and links are available to us at any moment. But what all was happening before we got Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, our own email inbox served up to us on a silver platter, before computers took their place in industry, planning, design, medicine, and so on and so forth?

People have tried to create a “computer” thousands of years ago

Before we set out on the trail of the origins of computing from its inception to the most modern third-generation computers, let’s try to describe what even makes a gadget or device a computer. You could say that a computer is a device that receives information, saves it, processes it according to instructions previously entered into it, and then gives us the desired result.

Now to the first attempts to develop a simple computer. People have been looking for ways and methods to manage and sort data for a long time. In the Palaeolithic era, special rods were used for simple calculation and counting, on which quantities, numbers and data were written. Ancient cultures in the Middle East, China, Europe, and Russia have used simple abacus arithmetic calculating tools since nearly 3,000 BC.

The ancient Romans, as expected according to the hundreds of inventions they introduced, developed their own Roman hand-made abacus, which they carried with them and was intended for merchants, tax collectors, and engineers. It considerably shortened their time for recalculating basic arithmetic operations.

The Greeks developed the first mechanical analogue computer before our era

People also developed many mechanical devices for astronomical observations, determining the position of celestial bodies, and navigating travel. The incredible invention of the Greeks from around 100 BC cannot be ignored here, found in 1901 on the island of Antikythera. It is the first mechanical analogue computer discovered (today’s computers are digital). They used it to recalculate the position of the planets and other celestial bodies. The device was so technically sophisticated that similar ones were created a whole millennium later.

Another milestone should be mentioned on our way to inventing modern computers – the invention of logarithms in 1614. Logarithms were introduced by Scotsman John Napier. Logarithms are hand-held analogue computers for multiplication and division. Later, logarithms were further upgraded with logarithmic scales, square root calculations, potential functions, and other operations.

Before the emergence of computers, the values of logarithms could be easily found in logarithmic tables. Here, Slovenes have also placed themselves in the historical framework. The Slovene nobleman Jurij Vega, a mathematician, physicist, geodesist, artillery officer, published logarithmic tables in 1794 in a notebook entitled Thesaurus logarithmorum completus (A treasury of all logarithms). His tables were used even by the famous mathematician Gauss, as they were accurate to ten decimal places. Some errors were discovered by later mathematicians only at the very high values.

Mechanical calculating machine with toothed gears for astronomy recalculations

At the time of the introduction of logarithms, another ingenious contribution to the development of science shone. The German Wilhelm Schickard, a mathematician and astronomer, researched the laws of the universe together with Johannes Kepler. He upgraded Kepler’s manual calculation of the position of the planets with the invention of a mechanical calculating machine that used gears. His mechanical calculating machine knew how to add, subtract, divide and multiply, and it allowed quick and easy calculations for the needs of astronomy.

In 1623, when it was built, few understood and recognised the value of this machine, Kepler was impressed by it. This opened a new chapter in history – following this example, new devices were created. One of the very famous ones is the Pascaline, a mechanical calculator invented by the renowned mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal, which was precise and distinguished by its simple operation.

Wilhelm Leibnitz was another well-known scientist who attempted to make a calculating machine that used gears. He perfected his machine, built in 1672 so that in addition to basic arithmetic operations, it was able to even calculate square roots.

An independently operating mechanism as early as the end of the 18th century

Let the old inventions amaze and surprise you a little more. Around 1770, the Swiss watchmaker Pierre Jacquet-Droz created a real mechanical toy that acted as a stand-alone mechanism. He placed a pen in its hand, and it was able to write with it. The inner wheels rotated according to the choice of different numbers – and so it was possible to compose whole messages with this mechanical toy.

These toys were called automatons (from Greek αὐτόματον, automaton: acting of one’s own will), which meant that they work seemingly automatically, but according to predetermined instructions. A walking duck created by de Vaucanson in 1738 is known to be a complete mechanism made of wheels connected to a mechanical system.

Now, automation could no longer be stopped; it penetrated many areas of human life and brought relief and progress. Thus, around 1830, Italian engineer and scientist Giovanni Plana made a unique mechanical device, a mechanical calendar, that made it possible to determine the days for all the years from the beginning of our count and for years far into the future.

The threshold of the 19th century was also the threshold of the emergence of modern computers

The end of the 19th century brought another advancement: the differential analyser, a mechanical analogue computer for calculating differential equations. The basis was a mechanism made of wheels and discs. This device was later improved, and the first computer was created, which was the predecessor of today’s modern computers. Where? Who built it? Was there really a woman involved (but history has not yet given her the right place)? About all this – in the following article.

Author: Lučka Tancer

Keywords: digitalization, computer, history


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.