Computer History

The evolution of the first recognizably modern computers in the 1940′s and early 1950′s is an epic story of innovation, collaboration, secrecy, and a technological phoenix built from the ashes of World War II. The development of The von Neumann Architecture, from concept, to ultimate practical realization lasted a few years, a decade, or a century depending on how you interpret the facts. The characters, places, and machines, in this story are legend; Babbage, Lovelace and the Analytical engine, Atanasoff’s ABC, Aiken and the Harvard Mk1, Zuse’s Z1 through Z4, Vannevar Bush, John Mauchly, J. Presper Eckert, John von Neumann, the ENIAC and EDVAC. Tommy Flowers the Heath Robinson and Collossus at Bletchley Park. TRE Malvern, Manchester University, the Baby and the Williams-Kilburn tube, Lyons tea shops and the EDSAC at Cambridge and the CSIRAC. My goal is not to catalog these efforts but rather to show the links between them and the web of collaboration that led to the evolution of the first modern computer.

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

This is the home of the Computer Evolution File. This file attempts to provide a comprehensive graphical representation of the evolution of the modern computer for the period 1934 to 1950. The file is licensed with an attribution, share alike creative commons license. Please feel free to download and make improvements and derivative works. Please send a copy of changes to me and I will share the updates on this page.

foobar @ bigfoot.com

Latest Version:- 0.3 released 2003-12-23
File Size Description
ComputerEvolution_V0.3.txt 70k Dot file for Graphviz
ComputerEvolution_V0.3.png 468k Full size Portable Network Graphics (PNG) file
Computer Evolution

The Antikythera Mechanism Explained?

The Antikythera Mechanism was discovered on May 17th 1902, by archaeologist Valerios Stais when he was diving on the Antikythera wreck off Point Glyphadia on the Greek island of Antikythera. The wreck is believed to have sunk in the 1st century BCE and has yielded many spectacular artifacts. The most mysterious of these is the Antikythera mechanism, a solid lump of corroded bronze gears. It has taken over a century, the latest imaging technology, and decades of research from a few dedicated scholars of mechanical engineering to piece together what the mechanism did.


I put together this playlist of short youtube videos. Together they describe the latest advances in understanding the mechanism and how it worked. There are four videos that take about 20 minutes to watch. Just click on the video and all four will play.

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Charles Babbage and Howard Aiken. How the Analytical Engine influenced the IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator aka The Harvard Mk I

In 1936, [Howard] Aiken had proposed his idea [to build a giant calculating machine] to the [Harvard University] Physics Department, … He was told by the chairman, Frederick Saunders, that a lab technician, Carmelo Lanza, had told him about a similar contraption already stored up in the Science Center attic.

Intrigued, Aiken had Lanza lead him to the machine, which turned out to be a set of brass wheels from English mathematician and philosopher Charles Babbage’s unfinished “analytical engine” from nearly 100 years earlier.

Aiken immediately recognized that he and Babbage had the same mechanism in mind. Fortunately for Aiken, where lack of money and poor materials had left Babbage’s dream incomplete, he would have much more success

Later, those brass wheels, along with a set of books that had been given to him by the grandson of Babbage, would occupy a prominent spot in Aiken’s office. In an interview with I. Bernard Cohen ’37, PhD ’47, Victor S. Thomas Professor of the History of Science Emeritus, Aiken pointed to Babbage’s books and said, “There’s my education in computers, right there; this is the whole thing, everything I took out of a book.”

[The Harvard University Gazette. Howard Aiken: Makin' a Computer Wonder By Cassie Furguson]


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Vannevar Bush and The Limits of Prescience

Today Vannevar Bush (rhymes with achiever) is often remembered for his July 1945 Atlantic Monthly article As We May Think in which he describes a hypothetical machine called a Memex. This machine contained a large indexed store of information and allowed a user to navigate through the store using a system similar to hypertext links. At the time of writing his essay Bush knew more about the state of technology development in the US than almost any other person. During the war, he was Roosevelt’s chief adviser on military research. He was responsible for many war time research projects including Radar, the Atomic Bomb, and the development of early Computers. If anyone should ever have been capable of predicting the future it was Vannevar Bush in 1945. He is an almost unprecedented test case for the art of prediction. Unlike almost anyone else before or since Bush was actually in possession of ALL the facts – as only the head of technology research in a country at war could be.

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Source Code as History

When the history of early software development is written it will be a travesty. Few historians will have the ability, and even fewer the inclination, to learn long dead programming languages. History will be derived from the documentation not the source code. Alan Turings perplexed, hand written annotation “How did this happen?” on a cutting of Autocode taped into his note book will remain a mystery.

What kind of bug would stump Alan Turing? Was it merely a typo that took a few hours to find? a simple mistake maybe? Or did the discipline of the machine expose a fundamental misconception and thereby teach him a lesson? The only way to know would be to learn Autocode.

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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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The Moore School Lectures and the British Lead in Stored Program Computer Development (1946 -1953)

In 1946 between 8th July and 31st August the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania held a special course entitled Theory and Techniques for Design of Electronic Digital Computers. The course was organized in response to interest generated by; the schools public announcement of the ENIAC, and the publication of The First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC. 1945 by Jon von Neumann. Attendance was by invitation only and the “Students” were selected from the leading experts at the major institutions working on the development of computing devices in the US and UK. At the time of this event there were only three published designs for a stored program computer and it was expected that all those present were familiar with these documents.

Within two years of these lectures the first stored program computer was operational, within 3 years there were 5 operational machines, and within 5 years stored program machines were commercially available. The Moore School Lectures, as they became known, were responsible for focusing all the leading developers of computing devices on a single problem:- How to design and build a stored program computer. It is interesting that despite being outnumbered and out-funded the British took, and held, the lead in this development effort between 1946 and 1953. In some areas such as business applications the British held the lead for much longer. How they were able to do this is not directly explained in any of the historical material available online, which tends to focus on individual development efforts and not on the larger picture.

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Misinformation and the Evolution of Early Computers

Amazing and totally inaccurate!

It’s difficult to know where to start in cataloging the faults with this diagram. So rather than waste my time trying I’ve started collating information to produce a better version. I’ll publish it here when I’m done.

I’m not sure where this diagram came from. It could be “Computer Structures” by Gordon Bell. But the reference was unclear.

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The First Railway Station: Unlikely Home for the First Computer

The Liverpool Street Station in Manchester, England is now part of The museum of Science and Technology. The Station was built in 1830 and is the oldest railway station in the world. On the opposite side of the tracks to the ticketing hall is the world’s first railway warehouse. In this building is a working replica of the worlds first stored program computer, Baby, the Manchester Mk I Prototype.

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The Art of Turing Completion

As I was researching the invention of the computer I found a few sites that while only tangentially related to the subject at hand were definitely worthy of note.

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The First Modern Computer – The Case for Baby, the Manchester Mk I Prototype

Finding an authoritative history of the Computer’s invention is almost impossible. There are several reasons for this problem: People disagree on the meaning of the word “invent”, they also disagree on the meaning of the word “computer”. Finally significant parts of the history were either lost or deliberately concealed and only came to light again in the 1960′s and 70′s. The United States Army was the first organization to stake a claim to the invention of the computer with the 1946 public announcement of the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer). It has since become commonly accepted that ENIAC was the worlds first computer when in fact it was not a computer, in the modern sense, at all, and was not even the first of its class.

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