A Brief History of Computing

Today I’m moving to a new topic, still under the general heading of spirituality. The new theme is the relationship between spirituality and computing. Whilst I will dwell on the Internet in later posts, it is important to understand what computing actually is. Hence I offer today a brief history of computing.

A computer is something that computes. What we call computers are a special case of something far more important to human society. People compute and one big advantage they have over machines is they (usually) understand what they are doing.

Indeed there would be no computing at all if people didn’t do it. So, everything we might call a computer is in fact an aid to human computing. Without us machines would have nothing to do!

Number Systems

Number systems are not machines but they are a great help to computing. They help us follow consistent rules and that means it is possible for machines to follow them.

People still use many simple number systems today. Various tally systems (sometimes called five barred gates) through to elaborate counting systems such as the one in the video, are still used and always will be.

Many counting system are based on letters of the alphabet. The Roman number system is the best known letter-based system. It is still used on some clocks and ordered lists. The main problem was some complex calculations, eg division!

I understand the Arabic number system originated in North India, developed by Hindus. The Christian Church of the East took it into the heart of the great Islāmic empire in the Middle East. From there Islam carried it into North Africa and from there to Spain. Europeans first encountered it as the Arabic number system.

We can see in this story the degree of collaboration between different cultures, as they improved their computing skills.

Engineers also benefitted from mathematical progress. Until pocket calculators and personal computers, engineers, scientists and teachers often carried a slide-rule in their pockets. These used logarithms and at school we had to understand them, laboriously converting maths problems into logs, adding or subtracting and then converting them back again.

Computing Machines

The other thing we might associate with these times is computing machines. The abacus was essential because the Roman numeral system made paper calculations too difficult. The abacus was actually rather efficient and big computations could be done by simply linking together several abaci and their human operators.

We should not make the mistake of thinking people were unable to carry out complex calculations. Computation might take longer and need a lot of people but it could be done.

Another mistake to avoid is the idea that there is straight line evolution of computers. Many machines in the early industrial revolution were programmable. Punch cards controlled some looms, for example, just like the earliest computers.

Indeed Ada Lovelace, the world’s first programmer, helped Charles Babbage program his first difference engine and it is likely programmable looms inspired her approach.

Babbage’s difference engine was in principle the first computer, although in practice it was difficult to build because he could not manufacture the parts to the required tolerance.  His later analytical engine proved impossible to build for the same reason.

Later developments included mechanical and electromechanical calculating machines.

Early Computers

The earliest computers used valves and later solid state circuitry. The problem was heat and while in principle it was possible to reduce the size of a university computer to that of an orange, it would need to kept in liquid nitrogen! Silicon chips in the late seventies changed all that and paved the way to personal computing, the Internet and mobile phones.

Next time I’ll look in more depth at how computers work.

In the meantime, share any thoughts or ideas about the history of computing here.

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About the Author

I've been a community development worker since the early 1980s in Tyneside, Teesside and South Yorkshire. I've also worked nationally for the Methodist Church for eight years supporting community projects through the church's grants programme. These days I am developing an online community development practice combining non-directive consultancy, strategic management, participatory methods and development work online and offline. If you're interested contact me for a free consultation.

Leave a Reply 3 comments

Gordon Ferguson - March 15, 2016 Reply

Will be interested to see where this one goes.
The term ‘computer ‘ was first used of persons, organised to do simple repetitive calculations following fixed rules, so that large numbers could work together to solve complex problems.
See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_computer
See also http://ethw.org/Women_Computers_in_World_War_II

Chris - March 15, 2016 Reply

I’m sure this is right. Someone else said the same to me last weekend. I hint at it in the paragraph about the abacus in my post. What surprises me is the term “human computer” is so recent! I’m sure linking together large numbers of people, with or without abaci, must have happened for hundreds or thousands of years.

It is interesting how technology seems to undermine specialist personal services. Human computers may be similar to the role of scribes who wrote and read letters. They would even copy a book on request. As technical advances put new technologies into more peoples’ hands the old specialisms die out. They’re often replaced by new trades but perhaps our technologies are now so adaptable we’re running out of trades to replace them.

Artificial Intelligence - Community Web Consultancy - April 6, 2016 Reply

[…] can develop machines that are not just clever but cleverer than we are.  However, these are still computing machines, machines that help us work things out.  These machines can be dangerous.  There is nothing to […]

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