The very first computers

20 May

A head with numbers circling round and the globe in the middleVictorian engineer Charles Babbage designed, though never built the first mechanical computer. The first computers had actually existed for a long time before he had his idea, though. The British superiority at sea and ultimately the Empire was already dependent on them. They were used to calculate books of numbers that British sailors relied on to navigate the globe. The original meaning of the word computer was actually a person who did these calculations. The first computers were humans.

Babbage became interested in the idea of creating a mechanical computer in part because of computing work he did himself, calculating accurate versions of numbers needed for a special book: ‘The Nautical Almanac’. It was a book of astronomical tables, the result of an idea of Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne. It was the earliest way ships had to reliably work out their longitudinal (i.e., east-west) position at sea. Without them, to cross the Atlantic, you just set off and kept going until you hit land, just as Columbus did. The Nautical Almanac gave a way to work out how far west you were all the time.

Maskelyne’s idea was based on the fact that the angle from the moon’ to a person on the Earth and back to a star was the same at the same time wherever that person was looking from (as long as they could see both the star and moon at once). This angle was called the lunar distance.

The lunar distance could be used to work out where you were because as time passed its value changed but in a predictable way based on Newton’s Laws of motion applied to the planets. For a given place, Greenwich say, you could calculate what that lunar distance would be for different stars at any time in the future. This is essentially what the Almanac recorded.

Now the time changes as you move East or West: Dawn gradually arrives later the further west you go, for example, as the Earth rotates the sun comes into view at different times round the planet). That is why we have different time zones. The time in the USA is hours behind that in Britain which itself is behind that in China. Now suppose you know your local time, which you can check regularly from the position of the sun or moon, and you know the lunar distance. You can look up in the Almanac the time in Greenwich that the lunar distance occurs and that gives you the current time in Greenwich. The greater the difference that time is to your local time, the further West (or East) you are. It is because Greenwich was used as the fixed point for working the lunar distances out, that we now use Greenwich Mean Time as UK time. The time in Greenwich was the one that mattered!

This was all wonderful. Sailors just had to take astronomical readings, do some fairly simple calculations and a look up in the Almanac to work out where they were. However, there was a big snag. it relied on all those numbers in the tables having been accurately calculated in advance. That took some serious computing power. Maskelyne therefore employed teams of human ‘computers’ across the country, paying them to do the calculations for him. These men and women were the first industrial computers.

Before pocket calculators were invented in the 1970s the easiest way to do calculations whether big multiplication, division, powers or square roots was to use logarithms. The logarithm of a number is just the number of times you can divide it by 10 before you get to 1. Complicated calculations can be turned in to simple ones using logarithms. Therefore the equivalent of the pocket calculator was a book containing a table of logarithms. Log tables were the basis of all other calculations including maritime ones. Babbage himself became a human computer, doing calculations for the Nautical Almanac. He calculated the most accurate book of log tables then available for the British Admiralty.

The mechanical computer came about because Babbage was also interested in finding the most profitable ways to mechanise work in factories. He realised a machine could do more than weave cloth but might also do calculations. More to the point such a machine would be able to do them with a guaranteed accuracy, unlike people. He therefore spent his life designing and then trying to build such a machine. It was a revolutionary idea and while his design worked, the level of precision engineering needed was beyond what could be done. It was another hundred years before the first electronic computer was invented – again to replace human computers working in the national interest…but this time at Bletchley Park doing the calculations needed to crack the German military codes and so win the World War II.

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