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Sunday, May 18, 2008

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Computing History

Lauren Bickel p.5

To find the first computing machine or method is like looking for a needle in a haystack: literally. There are so many inventions it’s hard to know where to start. The most practical, I guess, would to start at the beginning.

Tally marks. That’s right: tally marks! They’re probably the first way to record data. Tally marks (or tally sticks) can be grouped into certain numbers and then calculated easily. It is an “ancient memory aid device” to “record and document” things.

The Ishango Bone, believed to be over 20,000 years old, was found in Africa. The bone has three different columns of marks. Some scientists have suggested that “the groupings of notches indicate a mathematical understanding that goes beyond counting.” Alexander Marshack examined the bone, and concluded that it may represent a six-month lunar calendar. The tally mark-like findings on the bone are “believed to have been made by a woman”. Claudia Zaslavsky, an American educator, suggests this. She thinks that it may be for a woman’s menstrual cycle. The Ishango Bone is a Baboon’s fibula, which is located in the leg. It also has a sharp quartz fixed to the end of it, perhaps for writing?

The South Pointing Chariot is one of the most complex machines in the ancient world. It’s basically a compass that always points south. It was created by Yellow Emperor Huang Di. The chariot was wheeled around and no matter if it was turned right of left the gears on the chariot would make the little man on top point South the entire time.

The Antikythera Machine and the Abacus are tied for the same place. No one is sure which one came before the other, so I’m going to tell you about the Antikythera Machine. It’s believed to have been built by Archimedes, a Greek Mathematician. The only reason it may have been built by him is that it has many similar parts to some of his other works. It was found on a sunken ship in the Mediterranean Sea and dates back to about 250 BC. The Antikythera Machine was a mechanical device that could map the stars and other planets on “any given date, past or future.”

The Babylonians invented the Abacus around 300 BC. Now-a-days Abaci are usually made with beads, wire and a wooden frame. But they were first made with beads or stone that would sit in grooves on a flat surface. Flat surfaces would be something like wood, stone or metal. The Abacus has been ‘adopted’ by many cultures and countries. In fact it is still used by merchants and clerks today. Each sting (or groove) has beads on it. Depending on the culture, each string has a certain number of beads for easy calculation.
Moving these beads around helps us keep track of the data we want to know.

In 1821 Charles Babbage, an English mathematician, invented a mechanical computing machine called the Difference Engine. In 1833, when it was tested, it failed. Babbage then moved onto the Analytical Engine. Analytical means: “Of or relating to analysis or analytics.” To put it simply: it means that it had something to do with science and/or math. The machine was basically a calculator. It is said to have preformed “without human error”. It could calculate data faster then any existing method.

Babbage went to Cambridge University. Some time after he graduated he was elected Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. Newton and Stephen Hawking have held the same spot. He quit his professorship to give all of his attention to the Analytical Engine.

The Analytical Engine is a mechanical digital computer. It was to be steam powered. Hint: “was to be”. Babbage’s dream seemed to lack funds to get it up on it’s feet. It was only after electronic computers were built that the designers discovered the extant of what the machine could do.

In 1835 Joseph Henry invented the Relay. A realay is “a switch that can be opened and closed by another electric current. It’s considered an electical amplifier, because it puts out more electicity then is put into it.

Back came Babbage in 1847 with the Difference Engine No. 2. “The machine would have operated on 7th-order differences and 31-digit numbers.” Well, it turns out that Babbage had never built one. He had just made blue prints and such. So a team at London’s Science Museum built a working model. In 2000 they built a working printer to go along with it.

Ramon Verea invented a calculator with a multiplication table in 1878. It was praised because it made things so much easier and faster. Then funny thing is that he only invented it because he wanted to show people that “a Spaniard could invent something just as good as an American”. In 1879 Babbage finally died and it was agreed that his machines would be “impossible” to build now that he was gone.

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