- "To err is human, but to really foul things up you need a computer."
- –Paul R. Ehrlich
- "The good thing about computers is that they do what you tell them to do. The bad news is that they do what you tell them to do."
- –Ted Nelson
Historical Context Edit
If one thinks of a computer as a device simply to aid computation, then these have been around for millennia. An abacus, used as early as 2400 BC, is just such as device. (For that matter, so is counting using fingers, but that’s far too simple for modern civilization.) A mechanical astrolabe with a calendar calculator was devised by Abi Bakr in Persia in 1235 AD. The slide rule was invented around 1620. The “differential analyzer,” a mechanical analog calculator, was first proposed by Lord Kelvin in 1876, and by the 1920s Vannevar Bush and others had built such contraptions.
But most people think of a computer as a device that is programmable to perform and display a wide variety of tasks, something more than a souped-up calculator. The primogenitor of such was built in 1833 – about a century ahead of its time – by the “father of the computer,” the Englishman Charles Babbage. His programmable “mechanical computer” incorporated punched cards, a printer, an arithmetic logic unit, conditional branching and even an integrated memory (of sorts) … all recognizable to any present-day computer geek.
It was the arrival of electricity that spawned the “Computer Age.” The principles of pioneer “computer scientist” (actually, he was a mathematician) Alan Turing were first set out in his 1936 paper “On Computable Numbers.” During the Second World War, various battling nations set about turning his insights into reality, for everything from breaking enemy codes to shooting down enemy aircraft. Most of the engineers used electricity and vacuum tubes rather than mechanical switches, and gave their monstrous machines names such as “ABC,” “Colossus” (the first digital programmable computer), and ENIAC (capable of 5000 additions or subtractions a second) in 1946, the first “Turning-complete” machine.
Since then, thanks to the invention of bipolar transistors and integrated circuits and semiconductors, and the efforts of a lot of tinkerers, computers have become ever faster, more compact and oozed into all sorts of human pursuits from research to manufacturing to warfare to entertainment. Thus, HAL 9000 and Skynet.