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The Evolution of Computers: Key Resources (July 2013): Human and Mechanical Computers

By Kyle D. Winward

Human and Mechanical Computers

A title unique for its topic and presentation is David Alan Grier’s When Computers Were Human, in which Grier frames the two-century (1758 to ca. 1954) history of human calculation along with the personal story of his grandmother, who was one of the hundreds of Works Progress Administration employees who performed highly repetitive calculations.  Early mechanical ancestors of the modern computer include all of the calculating machines that came before it, including tabulators and adding machines.  While not a work for general readers, Georges Ifrah’s The Universal History of Computing: From the Abacus to the Quantum Computer provides an extensive and authoritative examination of the history of mathematical concepts and calculation machines that predated the modern computer.

The use of punched cards was another important development in the evolution of computer development.  Although not for calculation purposes, the apparent first instance of punched cards use in an industrial setting was in 1804 by Joseph-Marie Jacquard to develop repeatable patterns on silk-loom threaders, as James Essinger recounts in Jacquard’s Web: How a Hand-Loom Led to the Birth of the Information Age.  The first program-controlled mechanical and electromechanical computers used punched cards and punched paper tape, and the industry relied heavily on them through the 1970s.

Charles Babbage, a nineteenth-century British scientist who made seminal contributions to the early history of computing, intended to use punched cards with his Analytical Engine; however, even though modern computers continue to be based on this design, the machine was never built during Babbage’s lifetime.  Ada Lovelace was a significant figure not only for recording Babbage’s research, but also for contributing to his research, including designing a program for the Analytical Engine.  In The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer, Doron Swade details not only Babbage’s research and attempts to build the machine, but also the successful efforts of researchers to build the engine in the 1990s.

A brief overview and explanation of these early mechanical computers is provided in “The First Mechanical Computers”, part of the DIY Calculator site, which contains sections on Jacquard’s punched cards and Charles Babbage.  On the searchable time line From Cave Paintings to the Internet, among the many milestones that Jeremy Norman includes is the automatic counting machine that Herman Hollerith developed in 1900, which was used to greatly speed the punch cards calculation process for the U.S. Census.  Both the IBM Century: Creating the IT Revolution, edited by Jeffrey Yost, and James Cortada’s Before the Computer: IBM, NCR, Burroughs, and Remington Rand and the Industry They Created, 1865-1956 explore in detail punch card development and usage.