I teach 109

I'm Luke, I teach CMPT-109 at Montclair State University and this is my blog.

The Long History of Computing


Many students come into this course thinking that computers are a recent invention. Because personal computing exploded, and became mainstream only in the last two or three decades they thing that’s when all of this has started. Few students realize that computer science started much earlier. It started with Charles Babage and Ada Lovelace.

Charles Babage was an English gentleman living in the 1800’s. Even though we now consider him the father of computer science, back then he was merely a mathematician. His work revolved around automation. In his day and age, a computer was the name given to a person whose primary job was computation. Before calculators and iPhones, tedious job of cranking out numbers was usually given to low wage workers who sat in dimly lit rooms and worked out polynomial equations on paper, using an abacus, pen and quill as their only tools.

Babage was in the business of putting those folks out of business. He built machines that automated the tedious, mathematical computation. And why not? Babage was not the first person to reflect upon the fact, that a huge part of math is just tedious repetition that is rigid, rule based and completely deterministic. You could essentially train anyone to solve a certain type of equation once, and they could then do it all day by rote - simply plugging numbers into equations, and working them out according to memorized rules. There was no reason why a machine could not be built that would do the same.

So Babage built an automated polynomial equation solver known as the Difference Engine:

The Difference Engine

You could feed it a set of numbers, turn the crank a few times and it would spit out results. It wasn’t really the first “computer”, but it was definitely one of the first mechanical calculators. And it was built entirely steam-punk style - with gears, cranks, levers and springs. It was a clockwork machine with no electronic parts because electronics did not exist back then.

Babage’s more ambitious invention was the Analytical Engine. It was similar to the Difference Engine, but vastly more complex. His dream was to build a machine that could solve any kind of equation - not just a certain type of polynomials. He would feed information into the machine using specially prepared punched cards - the holes would set or re-set various switches and levers in the machine putting it in a specific state that would describe how to solve the equation.

Babage succeeded in designing his machine on paper, but it was never successfully built to his specification. There was a myriad of reasons for it - there were technical issues with building gears and switches that were precise enough with the manufacturing methods of the day. His project was also starved for funding, and his mad scientist like personality did not help in that aspect. His design was later proved to be correct when the machine was actually completed long after his death.

But even without a prototype, his work captured the hearts and minds of many contemporary scholars - including Lady Ada Lovelace who became the first programmer. Ada was a huge fan of Babage’s work and was one of the few people at the time who truly understood the purpose, inner workings and the potential uses of the Analytical Engine. She went down in history as the first person in the world who wrote an actual “computer program” - an orderly set of instructions that could be fed into a machine to illicit specific behavior. She also helped to debug programs written by Babage himself - all without a working prototype she could test her findings on.

Babage was considered such an awesome thinker that after his death his brain was put in a jar so that it could be displayed in museums:

Babage Brain

No, I’m not kidding. This has actually happened. Look it up.

I hope tat from now on, when someone says something about computers being a recent, new-fangled invention you will realize they are dead wrong. From now on, when thinking about history of computing, please be reminded about Babage’s brain in a jar, and his amazing Steam-Punk style clockwork computers.