Surprised to see the image of jacquard fabric in the article about computers? Don’t be, because it’s how it all started. We have to go over 200 years back. At that time if figured textile designs were required, this was done on a draw loom. The basic purpose of any loom is to hold the warp threads under tension to facilitate the interweaving of the weft threads. A loom is used to weave cloth; and weaving is a method of fabric production in which two distinct sets of yarns or threads are interlaced at right angles to form a fabric or cloth. The heddles with warp ends to be pulled up were manually selected by a second operator (draw boy), apart from the weaver. It was slow and labour intensive, with practical limitations on the complexity of the pattern.
The Most Famous Image in the Early History of Computing: This portrait of Jacquard was woven in silk on a Jacquard loom and required 24,000 punched cards to create (1839). It was only produced to order. Charles Babbage owned one of these portraits; it inspired him in using perforated cards in his analytical engine
Joseph Marie Jacquard (1752–1834) recognized that although weaving was intricate, it was repetitive, and saw that a mechanism could be developed for the production of sophisticated patterns just as it had been done for the production of simple patterns.
In 1801, Joseph Marie Jacquard made an improvement to the textile loom by introducing a series of punched paper cards, pieces of stiff paper that contains digital information represented by the presence or absence of holes in predefined positions, as a template which allowed his loom to weave intricate patterns automatically. The resulting Jacquard loom was an important step in the development of computers because the use of punched cards to define woven patterns can be viewed as an early, albeit limited, form of programmability.
It was the fusion of automatic calculation with programmability that produced the first recognizable computers. In 1837, Charles Babbage was the first to conceptualize and design a fully programmable mechanical computer, his analytical engine. Limited finances and Babbage’s inability to resist tinkering with the design meant that the device was never completed – nevertheless his son, Henry Babbage, completed a simplified version of the analytical engine’s computing unit (the mill) in 1888. He gave a successful demonstration of its use in computing tables in 1906. This machine was given to the Science museum in South Kensington in 1910.
In the late 1880s, Herman Hollerith invented the recording of data on a machine-readable medium. Earlier uses of machine-readable media had been for control, not data. “After some initial trials with paper tape, he settled on punched cards …” To process these punched cards he invented the tabulator, and the keypunch machines. These three inventions were the foundation of the modern information processing industry. Large-scale automated data processing of punched cards was performed for the 1890 United States Census by Hollerith’s company, which later became the core of IBM. By the end of the 19th century a number of ideas and technologies, that would later prove useful in the realization of practical computers, had begun to appear: Boolean algebra, the vacuum tube (thermionic valve), punched cards and tape, and the teleprinter.
During the first half of the 20th century, many scientific computing needs were met by increasingly sophisticated analog computers, which used a direct mechanical or electrical model of the problem as a basis for computation. However, these were not programmable and generally lacked the versatility and accuracy of modern digital computers.
Alan Turing is widely regarded as the father of modern computer science. In 1936 Turing provided an influential formalisation of the concept of the algorithm and computation with the Turing machine, providing a blueprint for the electronic digital computer. Of his role in the creation of the modern computer, Time magazine in naming Turing one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century, states: “The fact remains that everyone who taps at a keyboard, opening a spreadsheet or a word-processing program, is working on an incarnation of a Turing machine”.
The Atanasoff–Berry Computer (ABC) was the world’s first electronic digital computer, albeit not programmable. Atanasoff is considered to be one of the fathers of the computer. Conceived in 1937 by Iowa State College physics professor John Atanasoff, and built with the assistance of graduate student Clifford Berry, the machine was not programmable, being designed only to solve systems of linear equations. The computer did employ parallel computation. A 1973 court ruling in a patent dispute found that the patent for the 1946 ENIAC computer derived from the Atanasoff-Berry Computer.
The first program-controlled computer was invented by Konrad Zuse, who built the Z3, an electromechanical computing machine, in 1941. The first programmable electronic computer was the Colossus, built in 1943 by Tommy Flowers.
George Stibitz is internationally recognized as a father of the modern digital computer. While working at Bell Labs in November 1937, Stibitz invented and built a relay-based calculator he dubbed the “Model K” (for “kitchen table”, on which he had assembled it), which was the first to use binary circuits to perform an arithmetic operation. Later models added greater sophistication including complex arithmetic and programmability.
A succession of steadily more powerful and flexible computing devices were constructed in the 1930s and 1940s, gradually adding the key features that are seen in modern computers. The use of digital electronics (largely invented by Claude Shannon in 1937) and more flexible programmability were vitally important steps, but defining one point along this road as “the first digital electronic computer” is difficult. Notable achievements include:
- Konrad Zuse’s electromechanical “Z machines”. The Z3 (1941) was the first working machine featuring binary arithmetic, including floating point arithmetic and a measure of programmability. In 1998 the Z3 was proved to be Turing complete, therefore being the world’s first operational computer.
- The non-programmable Atanasoff–Berry Computer (commenced in 1937, completed in 1941) which used vacuum tube based computation, binary numbers, and regenerative capacitor memory. The use of regenerative memory allowed it to be much more compact than its peers (being approximately the size of a large desk or workbench), since intermediate results could be stored and then fed back into the same set of computation elements.
- The secret British Colossus computers (1943), which had limited programmability but demonstrated that a device using thousands of tubes could be reasonably reliable and electronically reprogrammable. It was used for breaking German wartime codes.
- The Harvard Mark I (1944), a large-scale electromechanical computer with limited programmability.
- The U.S. Army’s Ballistic Research Laboratory ENIAC (1946), which used decimal arithmetic and is sometimes called the first general purpose electronic computer (since Konrad Zuse’s Z3 of 1941 used electromagnets instead of electronics). Initially, however, ENIAC had an inflexible architecture which essentially required rewiring to change its programming.
The first use of the word “computer” was recorded in 1613, referring to a person who carried out calculations, or computations, and the word continued with the same meaning until the middle of the 20th century. From the end of the 19th century the word began to take on its more familiar meaning, a machine that carries out computations.References: