Who Invented the Computer?

Charles Babbage Charles Babbage
Charles Babbage created the concept of a programmable computer. National Library of Wales/Wikimedia Commons

We could argue that the first computer was the abacus or its descendant, the slide rule, invented by William Oughtred in 1622. But the first computer resembling today's modern machines was the Analytical Engine, a device conceived and designed by British mathematician Charles Babbage between 1833 and 1871. Before Babbage came along, a "computer" was a person, someone who literally sat around all day, adding and subtracting numbers and entering the results into tables. The tables then appeared in books, so other people could use them to complete tasks, such as launching artillery shells accurately or calculating taxes.

It was, in fact, a mammoth number-crunching project that inspired Babbage in the first place [source: Campbell-Kelly]. Napoleon Bonaparte initiated the project in 1790, when he ordered a switch from the old imperial system of measurements to the new metric system. For 10 years, scores of human computers made the necessary conversions and completed the tables. Bonaparte was never able to publish the tables, however, and they sat collecting dust in the Académie des sciences in Paris.

In 1819, Babbage visited the City of Light and viewed the unpublished manuscript with page after page of tables. If only, he wondered, there was a way to produce such tables faster, with less manpower and fewer mistakes. He thought of the many marvels generated by the Industrial Revolution. If creative and hardworking inventors could develop the cotton gin and the steam locomotive, then why not a machine to make calculations [source: Campbell-Kelly]?

Babbage returned to England and decided to build just such a machine. His first vision was something he dubbed the Difference Engine, which worked on the principle of finite differences, or making complex mathematical calculations by repeated addition without using multiplication or division. He secured government funding in 1824 and spent eight years perfecting his idea. In 1832, he produced a functioning prototype of his table-making machine, only to find his funding had run out.

But, as you might have guessed, the story doesn't end there.