Following the path of digitalization in Slovenia and Europe: In the 19th century, the first modern computer appeared on the horizon

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 computing.  

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 discovery.

Difference Engine. Photo source: Wikipedia.
Difference Engine. Photo source: Wikipedia.

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, and division.

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.

Charles Babbage. Photo source: Wikipedia.
Charles Babbage. Photo source: Wikipedia.

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 computers do.

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. Photo source: Wikipedia.
Ada Lovelace. Photo source: Wikipedia.

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 computers

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 computer.

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.

ENIAC. Photo source: Wikipedia.
ENIAC. Photo source: Wikipedia.

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.

In 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 “electronic bombs”.

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, and coils.

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, first-generation computers


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.