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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.