Is the question ‘who invented the computer’ legitimate?

I have been known in the past, before I started blogging for myself, to take John Wilkins to task for claiming that Alan Turing is the father of the computer. My objection is that Turing is only one of many so-called fathers of the computer and to give any of them prominence by calling them the father is to falsify the history of computing. As today is the birthday of another of the fathers of the computer, Charles Babbage (1791 – 1871), I have decided to address the question as to whether it is legitimate to ask who invented the computer. The answer to this question is a specific one but its general principle can be applied to almost all similar questions in the history of science and technology. The simple answer to my question is no, it’s not legitimate. This of course provokes the next question, why not? The problem lies in the definite article; what do we mean when we say the computer? Depending on how we answer this question we get wholly different answers to our original question.

There are in fact a whole series of categories that apply to different concepts of the computer that must be taken into consideration when posing the question as to its inventor. Are we talking about mechanical, electro-mechanical or electronic computers? Konrad Zuse, who is generally credited with having built the first functioning computer, actually built one of each. Is the computer in question a special- or general-purpose machine? Is it conceived to solve one specific type mathematic problems or, at least theoretically, all types? The Bletchley Park computer, Colossus, was a special-purpose computer with a limited range of abilities. Does the computer under consideration have stored-programme or not? Most of the early computers did not. Finally and very important was the computer purely theoretical or was a fully functional model actual realised? The last question has more than theoretical value as the computer that is recognised by law in America, and thus for patent purposes, as the first, the Atanasoff-Berry Computer, was never actually built. As should be clear by permutating these categories we arrive at a fairly long list of first computers.

What about our birthday boy Charles Babbage? As should be fairly obvious Babbage’s computers were mechanical. He conceived and started to construct both a special-purpose, his Difference Engine, and a general-purpose computer, his Analytical Engine. The Difference Engine was not stored-programme but the Analytical Engine was. Babbage himself never finished construction of either machine but the Swedish engineer Pehr Georg Scheutz built and sold difference engines based on Babbage’s design. An improved model was also marketed by Martin Wiberg another Swede. A fully functional module for the Analytical Engine was constructed in modern times and can be viewed in the Science Museum in London.

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Filed under History of Computing, History of Mathematics, History of science

8 responses to “Is the question ‘who invented the computer’ legitimate?

  1. I don’t think we’re there yet, so it’s hard to say.
    No technology appears fully-formed without precedents, because we learn from our mistakes. Babbage was a conceptualiser, he never completed his machine, although we now know, having done so, that it would have worked. Can we now say that the modern general-purpose computer is sufficient? I think not, because it still fails the Turing Test, and that because it is quickly produced.
    Having made Systems Manager at Dollis Hill, where the first Goliath actually ran, and having named the core Main function for John Jaworsky’s first compiler back in 1967 (later copied by Dennis Ritchie in C for the UNix, whence it spread to Windows), I would like to see a wider approach to an operating system, eliminating the lazy core mostly in use, and emulated by all others, (Quick and Dirty Operating System QDOS having been sketched out overnight by Tim Paterson for the 8086), in favour of some form of stochastic learning system based around inputs rather than storage. The history of the PC chip shows the accretion of input/output functionality, but it’s not central, for all that the term BIOS seems to suggest it should be. Part of this is that we are still at an early stage of pattern recognition, for instance in respect to language recognition, and further yet from visual recognition, for example in the generation of a Z-layered world model of complex objects. For example, our programs devolve objects by subclassification and not by hybridisation, ignoring the fact we recognise objects from a set of phenomena (colour, tone, shape, size, weight etc) shared with other objects.
    I favour a degree of stochastic pragmatism in the learning system for two reasons. Firstly, there is the question of precision: do we really need to define every sub-atomic particle of a ball to know it’s a ball? Secondly, to handle the black-box question of reality, we don’t need to know about esthers to know a rose smells. That can come later: and that in turn opens the question of curiosity, the identification of relative importance of different domains of ignorance. Generalising this opens the subject of philosophy, for example, and thence wider pattern-recognition, both accretiatively and by elimination.
    This is remarkably close, of course, to the failed 5G work undertaken by the Japanese, partially because of poor input tools and because of a poor comprehension of reality. We’re in the domain of the studies undertaken in the 12th Century Paris Schools, of course, and to some extent that is the purpose of this exercise, as the mathematically-bounded domain of science is in danger of losing its way, its global vision, by its practice of specialisation: we need to step backwards to understand better choices made long ago to be able to investigate the areas disregarded then.
    For example, we research the history of chemistry to review alchemy and the supposedly impossible claims of the 1560s, which are giving some incomprehensible modern successes – and so we have new domains of chemistry opening. On the other hand, we also face the descent of the fifteenth-century conceptions of evil in some of the Designed Creation claims of the American fundamentalists, descendants of Guillaume de Champeaux, whose work yet influenced the 1560s claims, so we cannot cut the thinking entirely loose. I’m not arguing ID, I’m arguing the more fundamental scientific axiom that the world is not entirely chaotic, that it works according to Rules which may argue a wider intelligence – Asimov’s Univac’s “There is now” springs to mind.
    And therein lies the biggest scientific problem of all, proving the presumptions on which the work stands. Does 1+1=10? We must be careful, because we tend to be too limited in our designs: the boolean universe, for instance, includes other objects as well as True and False, it includes Undefined, Unknown (Heisenberg), Empty and Null.

  2. jeb

    Reminds me of the dwarf throwing competition engaged in by some German and Italian academics over the origin of Snowwhite some years ago. For some reason.

    With each side claiming her as their own in an amusing display of heated and irrate dwarf hurling and pure academic flag waving.

    Not an exact fit but the conclusion to be drawn from both issues have similarities.

  3. Babbage certainly was in the Beautiful Mind category, and at many points. He seems to me though a little in the category of Balzac’s “Unknown Masterpiece” on the computer, though–his work just doesn’t seem to have affected any of the later pioneers, nor does he appear to be referenced early on. I’m not so sure that he is even in the Mendl category of precursors of later revolutionary thought. This comment is swimming in qualifiers, I know, as this is just a gut reaction.

    • thonyc

      Your qualifiers are not necessary, Babbage’s influence on later pioneers in the field of computing was indeed minimal to non-existant. His achievements in this area were only recognised with hindsight which however does not diminish his brilliance.

      • thonyc

        p.s. love your web site which is now on my blog roll!

      • Babbage influenced Lovelace influenced Dodgson influenced Turing in the field of theoretical logic, so coming full circle. He didn’t have the electronic tools available we have, for all that Lovelace moved in the same circles as Faraday, so it’s much like the honey bee: it never should have flown, but it did, and so all credit in the framework of some of the older mechanical calculators like the Antikythera mechanism.

  4. Hi, I think that there is no clear and specific answer to this question. Everyone has different views on the topic.

  5. Pingback: The Giant’s Shoulders #19 « The Renaissance Mathematicus

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