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.