History of Computers/The Pursuit of Computation

The Mechanical Age


Since the early ages of computer history there have been innovations that have led to the advancement of technology. The first computers were mechanical, and sometimes prone to errors. They were calculating machines.


Blaise Pascal (June 19, 1623, Clermont-Ferrand – August 19, 1662, Paris) built a numerical wheel adding machine in 1642 in order to help out his father, who was a tax collector. It was a heavy burden to add numbers by hand, and Pascal had seen it as a chance to relieve that burden. He built twenty of these machines (called the Pascaline).

In 1673 Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, a German mathematician, built a calculator device that could add, subtract, multiply, and divide. It provided more functions than Pascal's machine and allowed users of it to solve more problems. Yet both Pascal's and Leibniz's machines were not totally dependable and suffered from flaws.

Mechanical Innovations


Joseph Jacquard, a French weaver, designed a punch card loom in 1805. A chain of punch cards in an certain order provided instructions for the loom's weaving pattern. The pattern could be changed by using different cards in different orders. This later lead to storing computer instructions on these cards.


Charles Xavier Thomas, another Frenchman, worked on a new mechanical computer. He called it the four-function machine and it was more reliable than Pascal's or Leibniz's machines. This was in 1820 as technology had progressed, and Thomas learned from Pascal's and Leibniz's works and flaws.

Larger Scale Mechanical Computers and Logic


Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace made contributions since 1842. The Difference Engine, the machine that became the template for the Analytic Engine, was an automatic logarithm tabulator and printer. It had a memory unit, automatic printout, sequential program control and punch-card input. The punch card idea was borrowed from Jacquard's loom.

Babbage had worked with computers for 20 years with the British government, and the government was threatening to withdraw funds because it had nothing to show for its investments. The project needed someone new to help out, and enter Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron and Lady Annabella Milbanke. Lovelace corrected some of Babbage's mistakes in the instructions and became the world's first debugger. It was a milestone for women in computer history. Lovelace suggested a binary system of numbers be used, which set the standard of future computers to use.

Sadly the Difference Engine did not function properly. The technology to create proper gears and shafts was not good enough to provide accuracy. Yet it helped pave the way for future computers. Later the IBM Corporation was able to build a working model of the Difference Engine using modern parts.