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  • August 15, 2019
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Pioneers: Babbage, Turing & Von Neumann

In previous blog posts about computers since 1940 and legacy hardware and software, we’ve focused on technologies—their specifications, their uses, and their effects on the world. In this post, however, we’re going to be focusing more on the people behind these technologies. We’re going to discuss Charles Babbage, Alan Turing, and John von Neumann—perhaps the three most significant pioneers of computing technology in its early stages.

First and foremost, we’ll describe their roles in the development of the computer, but we’ll also be discussing their lives and their other contributions to science and society in general, since they all led rather interesting lives and were innovators in multiple areas besides computing technology.

It should be noted, however, that the great majority of developments in computing technology, such as the first electronic programmable computer (Colossus), the first general-purpose electronic computer (ENIAC) and the first stored-program computer (SSEM) were team efforts, not individual accomplishments.

Charles Babbage (1791-1871), an English mathematician and inventor, was the first to come up with designs for a programmable computer. Among Babbage’s main interests were refining the accuracy of mathematical data in the sciences, especially astronomy, and finding ways to reduce inefficiencies in work environments, particularly factories.

To that end, he thought that he could create a machine that could perform calculations more accurately and efficiently than human beings. In the 1820s, he designed a steam-powered machine called a “difference engine” that could calculate the values of polynomial functions. Also, throughout his life, he worked on the designs for a device called an “analytical engine,” a general-purpose computer that could be programmed using punch cards.

Despite Babbage being the first to design a programmable computer, neither the difference engine nor the analytical engine were built during his lifetime, and the individuals that actually built the first functioning general-purpose computers in the 1940s were unaware of his work.

In 1832, Babbage published a book called “On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures,” which included the “Babbage principle,” advising businesses to assign responsibilities more precisely so that high-cost, high-skilled workers don’t waste their time with tasks that low-cost, low-skilled workers could perform instead. He was also the first to invent the pilot, which is the usually V-shaped “bumper” installed on the front of trains to prevent objects on the tracks from causing a derailment, and the ophthalmoscope.

His brain was preserved, and half of it is still on display at the London Science Museum, for some reason..

Alan Turing (1912-1954) was a British mathematician, cryptanalyst, and computer scientist that played a large role in the development of electronic, general purpose computers. He helped to develop the concept of a general purpose computer in 1936 with the publishing of the paper, “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem.”

During the Second World War, while working at the Government Code and Cipher School (GC&CS) at Bletchley Park, he designed the bombe, an electromechanical device that could decode messages sent in Enigma encryption by the German military. He also made some minor contributions to the design of the Colossus, the world’s first programmable electronic computer.

In 1946, he came up with the first fully-formed design for a stored-program computer. He followed up by helping to develop the software for the Manchester Mark 1, one of the first stored-program computers and a model for the Ferranti Mark 1, the first commercially-sold general purpose computer, in 1949.

Turing died in 1954 at the relatively young age of 41; he is believed to have committed suicide by cyanide poisoning. He had been stripped of his security clearance and let go from his consultancy position at the Government Communications Headquarters (the successor to the GC&CS) after being convicted of gross indecency in 1952, on the basis of his sexual relationship with a 19-year-old man, Arnold Murray.

In 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, speaking on behalf of the British government, apologized for the treatment of Turing; and Queen Elizabeth II pardoned Turing’s gross indecency conviction in 2013. 

John von Neumann (1903-1957) was a Hungarian mathematician and physicist that played a central role in defining the architecture of the stored-program, general-purpose computer. In 1944, while assisting the team of engineers at the University of Pennsylvania that were building the EDVAC—which was the successor to the ENIAC, the first electronic general-purpose computer—von Neumann wrote a paper called “First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC.”

In the paper, von Neumann outlined the basic structure of a stored-program computer. He identified the main components of the computer as the CPU (with an arithmetic logic unit and a control unit), memory, and input and output devices.

All stored-program computers have this basic structure, which eventually became known as the “von Neumann architecture,” despite the fact that many of the ideas in the paper were contributed by his EDVAC colleagues J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly.

Born in Budapest in 1903, von Neumann was a child prodigy that earned a Ph.D. in mathematics by age 22. He moved to the United States in the 1930s. In the 1940s, he helped design the explosives in the first atomic bombs of the US as part of the Manhattan Project.

He also was part of the selection committee that chose Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the targets of the bombs; was present at the first test detonation of an atomic bomb (“Trinity”); and later assisted in the development of the hydrogen bomb (which is how he became involved in the EDVAC project, as he was looking for a way to perform hydrogen bomb-related calculations and simulations with a computer) and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

He also contributed many groundbreaking findings, proofs, and inventions in fields such as geometry, quantum mechanics, quantum logic, and game theory. He died at age 53 from cancer in 1957, perhaps as a result of being present at several nuclear tests.


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