The Evolution of the Modern Computer (1934 to 1950): An Open Source Graphical History

Some time between 1934 and 1950 the first modern computer was created. Pinning down exactly when that event occured is not easy. It depends on how you define the term computer and what you think is more important: The concept, the design, the first succesful test, or the first time the machine solved a real problem. In those early days it usually took years for a team to progress from concept through design to working machine. There were many such teams working mainly in the US and UK. These teams competed and cooperated somtimes they shared ideas and designs, and they sent representatives to visit each others laboratories. On one famous occassion in the Summer of 1946 almost all the leaders in the field got together at the Moore School for an 8 week long series of lectures. In short the story of the emergence of the modern computer is a complex one that involves both direct and indirect contributions from many people.

There are many Computer History Timelines in existence. But all of these suffer from the same flaws. They are incomplete and thier linear nature fails to capture the complex web of influence that was the hallmark of computer development.

Downloadable files available here

In an effort to visualize this web of interaction. I have started to develop a graphical representation of the evolution of the modern computer. Fortunately AT&T have kindly released a package called Graphviz which is capable of drawing complex directed graphs. The graph above is produced by Graphviz from a text file.

The text file contains a detailed description of my approach, the classification I have used, and lists all the machines and the references to the data sources I used. I have not duplicated that information here because the whole point of the exercise is to gather all the data in one place.

I have licensed this file with an attribution, share alike creative commons license. So please feel free to download and improve what I have started. If you do make changes please send me a copy and I will share the updates on this page.

For the record. I believe that The Manchester Mk I Prototype was the first Computer in a modern sense. But the text file is not intended to prove this or any other machine was first. It is only intended to record the known dates and influences for computing machines designed between 1934 and 1950. I Believe that the graph is complex enough to support many interpretations.

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