Researching the First Computers

When I tell people that I’ve been researching the history of computing all summer, I prepare myself. I’ll soon be asked at least one of the following questions:

An ant meets an 80s-era memory chip. This image is borrowed from Stan Augarten's Bit by Bit.

  1. “What?”
  2. “Aren’t you an English major?”
  3. “Are you getting paid for that?”
  4. “So…what was the first computer?”

The first three questions have easy answers:

  1. “Har har, right. My friend Jon [Sweitzer-Lamme, ‘14] and I are creating an online resource for Professor Steven Lindell’s quantitative seminar, The History of Mechanized Thought. Our starting point was this computer history book we’ve gotten the rights to digitize, called Bit by Bit, which was written by journalist Steve Augarten in 1984. It’s a great book – informative, not too technical, has some great stories about crazy scientists. We’ve been researching the inventions and people discussed in the book and creating annotated resource pages. These are basically collections of websites, articles, videos, and other online materials that we’ve compiled and reviewed. We’ve also been cross-referencing these resource pages, and the information in the book, with teaching slides. The idea is that this website will be added to by the class this coming fall, creating an expanding, communal resource on the history of computers!”
  2. “Yeah, this is a super interdisciplinary project! So I’m an English major, Jon’s a History major, our project supervisor, Mike Zarafonitis, is the Digital Scholarship Librarian, and we’re working for a Comp Sci professor. We’re like the David Bowie of summer research projects.”
  3. “Yes, [Grandma,] I am. We’ve gotten funding from a bunch of different sources. I’m a student research assistant through the Center for Arts and Humanities, and Jon received funding through the KINSC.”

That fourth question – “What was the first computer?” – is a tougher one. It’s a question I get mostly from people who have some computer experience and want to test my computing mettle. Because – as you’ve probably guessed – it’s a trick question.

What is a computer? A computer, in very loose terms, is a device that can be given instructions and follow these instructions. Today, most of us only give oblique instructions to our computers through our keyboards or graphical user interfaces – our computer software does most of the heavy lifting. But if you’ve ever seen pictures of those dinosaur mainframes in university dungeons, you know that computers have not always been so user-friendly. They’ve evolved.

During our research this summer, I’ve explored the range of this bulky, contentious phylogenetic tree. Inventors have built on top of the efforts of other inventors, in scientific communities or in isolation. Some have had their inventions met with great success. Others have fallen off the tree almost entirely. So calling any one computer the “first” is a dangerous business, in terms of both accuracy and argumentation.

Instead of asking me which computer was first, which is a pretty dead-ended question, I’d prefer it if inquiring minds asked me which computer is my favorite.

Charles Babbage in his later years. Note the mad scientist hair. This image is also taken from Bit by Bit.

So: my favorite computer is Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. The British Babbage was an eccentric genius and an inveterate inventor. He was ill-mannered and stubborn, believed that Gloucester cheese had mystical powers (check out his stirring Cheese Story), and hated London’s street musicians. He’d managed to get lots of money from the British government to build a machine called the Difference Engine, which would calculate tedious numerical tables. Midway through designing that Engine, though, Babbage realized he had a better idea: why not design a machine that could not only add, but also subtract, multiply, and divide? It would be fed cards punched with instructions, execute operations in the Mill (or central processing unit), would store these operations and their answers in its memory. Once all this whirligigging was done, the machine would spit out an answer on a slip of paper. This was the Analytical Engine.

Babbage drew up elaborate plans for the Analytical Engine, but he never built it. He had too few funds and too many enemies (political enemies, social enemies, those street musicians). Babbage’s dream machine gets a lot of kudos in the computing world for how spectacularly ahead of its time it was. (Some call it the first computer.) Personally, I like the Analytical Engine because Babbage is best known for this machine, and I just love Babbage. He’s helped to personalize computing for me: the history of computing, like Babbage’s personal history, is a cantankerous, strange, inspiring, argumentative, tedious, ludicrous, obscured, enlightening, and often very disappointing history. It’s easier to condense this overwhelming mass of information into the form of one mad machinist, obsessively working his designs to the discordance of late-night street musicians, hoping to be the first to build a marvelous miracle engine.

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