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Friday, February 18, 2005

In the beginning ...

Ok, so here's the deal: I got challenged in my Film Noir class of all places over when the first computer was built. I said Colossus was the first computer built, because we used it to break cyphers around WW2. Guess what? The internet agrees with me and I thought I'd share it and educate you all:

The word [computer] was originally used to describe a person who performed arithmetic calculations and this usage is still valid (although it is becoming quite rare in the United States). The OED2 lists the year 1897 as the first year the word was used to refer to a mechanical calculating device. By 1946 several qualifiers were introduced by the OED2 to differentiate between the different types of machine. These qualifiers included analogue, digital and electronic. However, from the context of the citation, it is obvious these terms were in use prior to 1946. .

In the history of cryptography, the Colossus was the first programmable (to a limited extent) digital electronic computer. In World War II, Colossus was used for breaking the German Lorenz SZ 40/42 machine, codenamed "Tunny" by the British. Colossus was designed by Tommy Flowers at the British Post Office Research Station, Dollis Hill.
Colossus was preceded by several computers, many first in some category. Zuse's Z3 was the world's first functional fully program-controlled computer, and was based on electromechanical relays, as were the (less advanced) Bell Labs machines of the late 1930s (George Stibitz, et al). Assorted analog computers were semiprogrammable, some of these much predated the 1930s (eg, Vannevar Bush). Babbage's Analytical engine antedated all these (in the mid-1800s), and was both digital and programmable, but was only partially constructed and never functioned at the time (a replica of his Difference engine No. 2, built in 1991 does work, however). Colossus was the first combining all of digital, (partially) programmable, and electronic.
And here's another link to play with:


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