A Brief History of Computers: How the First Programmable Computer Was Born
To think and to reason makes us human and sets us apart from the rest of nature. Today, people communicate in intricate ways about complex subjects and at the center of it all is the computer with which our thoughts can be recorded. What once seemed impossible now seems commonplace and modern computers are now capable of amazing tasks that boggle the mind.
Computers have been around much longer than some of us might think. For instance, the Antikythera mechanism is an ancient analogue computer that was found in Antikythera Island in Greece and was used to predict astronomical positions and eclipses for calendrical and astrological purposes. This calculator is 2,000 years old.
There have been lots of mechanical computers through the ages such as the Leibniz Step Reckoner which was the first four function calculator built in 1673 to perform multiplication by repeated addition, and division by repeated subtraction.
Also, Charles Babbage’s Difference engine, an automatic mechanical calculator designed to tabulate polynomial functions was designed in 1849, had 8,000 parts, weighed 5 tons and was eleven feet long. Hardly a pocket calculator, right?
However, the first programmable computer, the Z1 was created by German, Konrad Zuse in his parents’ living room between 1936 and 1938. It is considered to be the first electro-mechanical binary programmable computer, and the first really functional modern computer.
Konrad Zuse was a science nerd and an inventor of the future. But in 1935, he was just another engineer in Berlin, Germany trying to progress and get along with his colleagues.
However, he had a sharp mind and was easily bored. At the Technische Hochschule Berlin (now Technical University of Berlin) where he enrolled, he explored both engineering and architecture, but found them boring. Zuse then pursued civil engineering, graduating in 1935.
While working as a design engineer at the Henschel aircraft factory in Schonefeld near Berlin, he did endless maths equations to calculate the effect of wind on airplane wings but the adding machines at the time were not easy to use because every tiny detail had to be inputted by hand. This monotony was greatly annoying to Zuse and he began thinking about how he could make it easier.
Working in his parents’ apartment in 1936, his first attempt, the Z1, was a floating point binary mechanical calculator with limited programmability, reading instructions from a perforated 35 mm film.
The eccentric tinkering of Konrad Zuse with the Z1 did indeed change the future and today, as a result of his and other ingenious efforts, we have all kinds of amazing and powerful computers all around us.
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