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Where is the Cradle of the Computer?

By Herbert Bruderer

June 20, 2022

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The digital computer of today arose in the first half of the 1940s independently in three different countries: Germany, the U.K. and the U.S.

In Berlin, the computer was the work of a single person, and elsewhere universities, government agencies, or industry played an important role. For political reasons, the German inventor was largely cut off from the outside world.

The English worked under top-secret conditions, because the focus was on the decoding of encrypted radio messages.

Within the Unites States, on the other hand, a certain exchange of information took place. Today's digital computer thus had several protagonists (see Table 1).

 

Table 1: The roots of today's computer technology in the 19th and 20th centuries

Co-inventors of the computer

Name

Country

Year

Machine

Charles Babbage

U.K.

1834

Analytical engine (unfinished)

Leonardo Torres Quevedo

Spain

1920

Analytical engine (experimental machine)

George Stibitz

U.S.

1939

Complex computer

Konrad Zuse

Germany

1941

Z3

John Atanasoff

U.S.

1942

Atanasoff-Berry computer

Thomas Flowers

Howard Aiken

U.K.

U.S.

1943

1944

Colossus 1

Harvard Mark 1/IBM ASCC

© Bruderer Informatik, CH-9401 Rorschach, Switzerland 2022

Remark

The computer is one of many inventions that originated independently in several locations.

The computer first saw the light in three countries around the world (see Table 2).

 

Table 2: Origin of the computer

 

Cradle of the program controlled digital computer

Country

Name

Year

Machine

Germany

Konrad Zuse

1941

Zuse Z3

U.K.

Thomas Flowers

1943

Colossus 1

U.S.

George Stibitz

1939

Complex computer

John Atanasoff

Clifford Berry

1942

Atanasoff-Berry computer

Howard Aiken

Clair Lake

1944

Harvard Mark 1/IBM ASCC

© Bruderer Informatik, CH-9401 Rorschach, Switzerland 2022

Remarks

The computer is supposed to have been developed – even if much later (1950) – independently in the former Soviet Union: with the Mesm of Sergey Lebedev.

The first North American development centers for program controlled digital computers were Iowa State College in Ames (today Iowa State University), Bell Telephone Laboratories (then in New York City), Harvard University (Cambridge, MA), and the University of Pennsylvania Philadelphia, along with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ< and Columbia University in New York. Some machines bore the designation "Mark," abbreviated as Mk., meaning "model."

 

Among the pioneers of today's digital computers were Turing and von Neumann (see Table 3).

 

Table 3: Originators of the theoretical prerequisites for the computer

Who created the theoretical foundation?

Name

Country

Year

Subject

Alan Turing

U.K.

1936

Universal Turing machine

John von Neumann

U.S.

1945

Von Neumann computer

© Bruderer Informatik, CH-9401 Rorschach, Switzerland 2022

Remarks

Besides Turing and von Neumann, a number of other researchers developed the theoretical prerequisites for modern automatic computers. Zuse, for example, addresses such questions (binary system, floating point notation, and logistics machine). The roots of the von Neumann architecture go back as far as the 19th century (Charles Babbage).

Important basic features of the present day digital computer are elaborated in the following papers:

Alan Turing (Cambridge University):
On computable numberswith an application to the Entscheidungsproblem (publication of November 30/December 23 1936),
Presentation of the universal Turing machine

John von Neumann (Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton):
First draft of a report on the Edvac
(circulated on June 30 1945)
Presentation of the stored program universal computer.

Numerous other names have been associated with the development of the computer (see Table 4). However, here we are concerned only with the original inventors.

Table 4: Builders of vacuum tube computers

Builders of electronic computers

Name

Year

Machine

J. Presper Eckert

1946

Eniac

Thomas Kilburn

1948

Manchester Baby

John Mauchly

1946

Eniac

Maurice Wilkes

1949

Edsac

Frederic Williams

1948

Manchester baby

© Bruderer Informatik, CH-9401 Rorschach, Switzerland 2022

 

Source

Bruderer, Herbert: Milestones in Analog and Digital Computing, Springer Nature Switzerland AG, Cham, 3rd edition 2020, 2 volumes, 2113 pages, 715 illustrations, 151 tables, translated from the German by John McMinn, https://www.springer.com/de/book/9783030409739

 

Herbert Bruderer ([email protected]; [email protected]) is a retired lecturer in the Department of Computer Science at ETH Zurich and a historian of technology.

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