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The word ‘computer’ had a very different meaning 100 years ago. Once upon a time, it referred to a person who completed calculations; and then later, it referred to more basic machines that completed certain calculations. Today, computers are integral pieces of technology that we rely on daily for a variety of tasks. Along the way there have been a multitude of innovators that contributed to advancements in technology, which all contributed to the culmination of what we recognize as a computer today. However, the most significant person in the history of computers is arguably Charles Babbage. Not only was Babbage an inventor that create designs for some of the more simplistic modern computers, but he inspired others to develop further technologies.
In 1821, Babbage designed the Difference Engine. This computing machine was steam powered, and borrowed from the prior technology available, featuring information input via metal punch cards (Reed, 2011). The Difference Engine was not a calculator in the fashion that we today would recognize. It simply achieved calculations through the use of repetitive addition (in contrast to the use of multiplication or division). Babbage never completed a fully functioning version of the Difference engine; however, a prototype he completed was usable for naval calculations (Reed, 2011). While the Difference Engine may not seem to be so critical in the progression to modern computers, it is a major stepping stone. This design and limitations inspired Babbage to design another type of engine that was more evolved- the Analytical Engine.
Babbage produced the design for the Analytical Engine in 1934. This machine’s design more resembled typical calculators, but also featured many concepts of modern computers as well. In addition to basic arithmetic functions, the Analytical Engine design also had storage, processing, programming, and outputs in the form of print outs and punch cards (Computer History Museum, 2018). This was essentially the first design of what would meet our modern definition of a computer: a machine that featured multiple components working together to process input and generate an output. Although no working model was completed in Babbage’s lifetime, this design truly shaped the concept of what computers could be and inspired other innovators to build upon the concepts Babbage laid out in his design.
Less widely noted, Charles Babbage was responsible for a number of other inventions. Living in the rise of the Industrial Age, Babbage had the opportunity to observe firsthand and note processes that were inefficient. A number of his other inventions were solely for the purpose of improving the quality of life in the workplace (Park, 1996). Some of these inventions included ink rollers, recording devices for seismic activity, and a punch-clock. Though these inventions are not as relevant to modern computers as his other designs, the principles which led to them are. Modern computers are designed and programmed to make tasks easier to complete and therefor improve our quality of life. Babbage was the first person to really try to build upon that concept through the utilization of machines.
The most poignant example of how Babbage’s work inspired modern computers can be seen in the first computer built- the MARK I. In 1944, Howard Aiken produced the MARK I as part of a project at Harvard University (Reed, 2011). It was based upon the integration of Babbage’s designs and modern technology (electronic relays). While Aiken’s design was far more advanced than either of the Babbage engines, the MARK I was based upon many of the core principles of Babbage’s designs. As this was the first working model of what we would consider a modern computer, it is easy to understand how Babbage’s designs in turn influenced the future of computers.
Although no fully functioning model of Babbage’s engines was completed in his lifetime, there have been several completed since. In fact, an engine resides at the Smithsonian; which was completed in 1853 by a Swedish father and son (Park, 1996). This particular version was based upon the Difference Engine; however, it was also capable of printing its output. Another project was completed at the Science Museum of London in the early 1990s which resulted in a complete working model of the Difference Engine (Computer History Museum, 2018). The project followed Babbage’s design precisely and produced a fully functioning machine. While it may seem a moot point to have produced these models of Babbage’s work, the processes to achieve success provided valuable engineering information that despite our advances were still very relevant.
If Charles Babbage is the father of computers, then by all rights Ada Lovelace is the mother of programming. One of the major components of Babbage’s design of the Analytical engine was that it could be programmed to carry out certain tasks. From this concept and her fascination with Babbage’s work, Lovelace noted specific processes for the engine to carry out multiple tasks. Most of these tasks were mathematical calculations or applications; however, she foresaw that there was potential for the engine to do other tasks- like compose music (Computer History Museum, 2018). While our modern programming capabilities far exceed what she conceptualized, she provided the first “skeleton concept” for what programming could accomplish. Lovelace’s primitive programming concepts inspired and contributed greatly to modern innovators developing the first computer programs. This would not have been possible without the work of Charles Babbage first inspiring her.
There is so much more to computer technology today that simply a machine. Computers are made up of complex systems, pieces of hardware, and a multitude of programs; all of which are critical for the computer to meet the variety of needs we have placed upon it. While the creation of these pieces of technology lay at the feet of many different people, the ideas of Charles Babbage and those he inspired directly contributed to these concepts. It is for this reason it easy to see how critically important he was to computer technology.
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