UK - Charles Babbage - 1837

Charles Babbage was a Cambridge mathematician who initially developed and attempted to build a mechanical “Difference Engine”. This was a large and complex device for calculating and printing certain types of mathematical table. But in 1837 he had the idea for what he termed an “Analytical Engine” - a general-purpose mechanical computer controlled by sets of punch cards.

Though mechanical, the complexity and detail of Babbage’s design was staggering. The ‘Engine’ had a store for 1,000 50-digit numbers in a volume 30 inches by 25 by 30-40 high.

In three short years he invented many of the fundamental concepts that are embodied in the logical design of the modern computer. His incomplete prototype machine and engineering drawings are now among the Science Museum’s most prized exhibits. Babbage’s design for a Difference Engine has since been successfully constructed - providing yet further evidence of the technical merits of his design.

Yet Babbage himself became very frustrated with his own designs.

His ideas, many of which were uncannily like those adopted for 20th century computers, were over a century ahead of their time and only became fully practical once electronic components were available. At the technological level of the time in which he lived and with no one to discuss his ideas with, his dreams of the general-purpose Analytical Engine could not be fully brought to fruition.

Yet more than anyone, Babbage was the first to realise that a machine could replace some of the work of the human mind. However, it seems his ideas did not influence those who constructed the first electronic computers simply because they were ignorant of his work.

Charles Babbage

In the 20th Century, four pioneers contributed a great deal in the run up to the first working Electronic Digital Computers without actually ever producing electronic machines themselves.