100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview

Digital Computer
Year of Invention: 1943

What Is It? An electronic machine capable of rapid, repetitive calculations, of
user interface, and of branching logic decisions.

Who Invented It? Howard Aiken (in Cambridge, Massachusetts)


Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

Programmable computers govern and control how we do much of what we do. Computers do for information what DNA does for life. They will define it and provide organization, direction, and control for information and information sharing. Virtually all of our activity, development, knowledge, and scheduling are now keyed to a computer. Education, production, and vital decision making are linked to the computer. Every facet of modern life depends on, or is linked to, the programmable computer.


History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

The first mechanical device developed to perform math was the abacus, an early adding machine that used beads for counters. Devices like an abacus were drawn in the sand for individual computations by early Babylonians. Some clever, unknown Egyptian was the first to build a wood and metal abacus. About the same time, a similar abacus appeared in China.

In the early part of the seventeenth century the Scotsman John Napier created an early version of a slide rule, called “Napier’s Bones.” Made of ivory or wood, these strips could slide next to each other to perform multiplication. By the end of that century, formal slide rules were in use throughout Europe.

The first step toward a true computing machine came in the mid-nineteenth century, when Englishman Charles Babbage envisioned a machine capable of performing complex calculations. Babbage could draw his machine on paper, but he could not build it because factories of the day could not produce the precision parts he needed.

Babbage’s assistant, Ida Lovelace, recognized the need to create simple, repetitive groups of commands to make the machine run efficiently. She created the first computer language.

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