Who Invented the Computer?


Who Invented the Computer?

Tough question. Let’s start by thinking about what computers do – for the most part right now, they take tasks that we can do in our heads, and they automate them.  Some things are more complex than you can do within one head, and that’s another thing.

But if we take that first idea – outsourcing tough things that we can already do, the first computer was probably the abacus.  We had already figured out addition, subtraction, multiplication and division – all the tasks that the abacus performed.

If we could already do all those things ourselves, why did we need an abacus?  It had a few advantages.

  • It made math accessible even to people that didn’t know the basic principles – it is easier to teach someone how to get an answer from an abacus than it is to teach them all of that complicated math stuff.
  • It (mostly) eliminated mistakes – the accuracy rate is higher with an abacus – especially for more complex problems.
  • It opened up space in our heads to think about other stuff – by outsourcing what is basically a routine task, it enables people to think about less routine, higher order things.  Of course, it also opens up more free time for playing mah jongg, or watching television now, but in theory the abacus frees up brain cycles that we can use for something else.

Who invented the abacus?  I’m not sure that there is one specific person that we think of as the parent of the abacus.  But it’s a candidate for the first computer.

Other Early Computers

So – outsourcing routine computational tasks from our heads to a machine.  What was next?

Leibniz made is Step Reckoner in 1694 – this was basically a western version of the abacus.  He also invented binary notation – you wouldn’t be reading this post right now if it weren’t for binary.

In 1823, Charles Babbage invented the Difference Engine.  It would have been the first thing more like our modern computers, if he could have built it.  Unfortunately, despite thousands of pounds of grants from the British government, and years of effort, Babbage was unable to build a Difference Engine in his lifetime.  It was too complex, and the machining capabilities of the time weren’t sufficient to make parts of the needed precision.


English: A photo of the Difference Engine cons...

A photo of the Difference Engine constructed by the Science Museum based on the plans for Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After looking over Babbage’s plans, Ada Lovelace wrote instructions for the Difference Engine, and invented computer programming.

Herman Hollerith made his Tabulating Machine to compile the data from the US Census, first for the 1890 census, and then a refined version for the 1900 census.  This was the first machine to read data off of punch cards, and Hollerith’s firm was one of the ones that merged to form IBM.

The First Direct Ancestor of the Modern Computer

There was a bit of a gap, and then World War II drove a renewed interest in building computers.  The world’s first programmable computer was the Colossus at Bletchley Park in the UK – primarily designed by Tommy Flowers.  They used it for code cracking.

Shortly after that, the US military fired up ENIAC, designed by J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly at University of Pennsylvania.  It was primarily designed for running anti-aircraft operations.

Eckert and Mauchly were then hired by Remington-Rand to build the UNIVAC, which was the first computer sold commercially.

Innovation Lessons from the Invention of the Computer

We don’t think of the “inventor” of the computer in the same way that we think of the inventor of the Dyson Vacuum – although maybe if Babbage had called it a Babbage in stead of a Difference Engine we might.  It’s curious, though, isn’t it? We all know about Edison and the lightbulb (or do we?), but very few people have heard of Flowers, Eckert and Mauchly.

There are two key points here:

One – the new always builds on the old.  We can trace the history of the computer back thousands of years.  If we hadn’t had the abacus, or something that performed the same function, we would not have computers now.  Even though few people use an abacus now, or a slide rule, those technologies (technics!) are embodied in computers, just as Leibniz’ binary notation runs everything we use today.

Innovation is a story of combination.

Two – great ideas always have multiple authors.  Always.  We like to think about the hero that triumphs against all odds, but this is a deeply misleading story.  Innovation is nearly always triggered by brilliance, but it is usually collective brilliance, not individual brilliance.

Even though Flowers, Eckert and Mauchly designed Colossus and ENIAC, they worked closely with people like Alan Turing, John von Neumann and John Nash.  And hundreds of people contributed to designing and building those two machines.

This means that we have to not just cultivate brilliant people in our organisations, but  brilliant teams.  These are actually two different things, and they require different skills, different management styles and different organisational structures.

The fact that we don’t know who invented the computer tells us a lot about innovation and how it works.


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Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

4 thoughts on “Who Invented the Computer?

  1. Good thinking as always Tim.

    Dr. Doron Swade led the work to build Charles’ Difference Engine No. 2, and I suggest he would disagree with your statement that to build one in Charles’ lifetime “was too complex, and the machining capabilities of the time weren’t sufficient to make parts of the needed precision.” This is an oft-repeated and long held idea, but one which has been demonstrated to be incorrect. In his thorough history of the project to build the Difference Engine No. 2, Dr. Swade states that while they resolved they simply had to use modern manufacturing techniques for simple reasons of practicality, they took careful measurements of artefacts that had come from manufacturing done for Charles and made sure that the tolerances they manufactured to, and the materials they used, were true to his period. He resolves, “It is fair to conclude that had Babbage built the machine, it would have worked.”

    This takes nothing away from your argument that innovation is incremental, with which I heartily agree. Indeed, Charles’ innovative work included both incremental development and more radical departures—such as moving on from the Difference Engine No. 2 to more sophisticated designs like the Analytical Engine. These radical departures, rather than iterating on earlier designs and bringing them to market, is in my view (and informed by various historians) the true reason why none of Charles’ machines were fully built in his lifetime. An important lesson for all of us who are researchers that seek to impact on the real world.

    The family has great admiration for the work of Dr. Swade and his team in further uncovering the depth of Charles’ work. I commend Dr. Swade’s description of the work to you:

    • Thanks for that Duncan – that’s really interesting. I’ll look up Swade’s work. Given the level of investment in the project from the British government, I find that conclusion astonishing! But, I’ll definitely do some reading up on it.

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