The Historical Text Archive: Electronic History Resources, online since 1990 Bringing you digitized history, primary and secondary sources


First Computer Made

A computer is a machine for manipulating data according to a list of instructions and can take on many physical forms. In 1837, Charles Babbage was the first to conceptualize and design a fully programmable mechanical computer that he called “The Analytical Engine”. Due to limited finance, and an inability to resist tinkering with the design, Babbage never actually built his Analytical Engine. In 1941, Konrad Zuse's electromechanical “Z machines,” the Z3, was the first working machine featuring binary arithmetic, including floating point arithmetic and a measure of programmability. Later on in the year 1998 the Z3 was proved to be Turing complete, therefore being declared the world's first operational computer. In addition to being the designer of the first computer made, Zuse founded the first computer startup company in 1946. This company then went on to build the Z4, which became the first commercial computer, which was leased to ETH Zürich in 1950. Due to the circumstances of World War II, however, Zuse's work initially went largely unnoticed in the United Kingdom and the United States. It is possible his first documented influence on a US company was IBM's 1946 option on his patents.

The Atanasoff-Berry Computer also came out in the same year as the first computer made. The Atanasoff-berry used vacuum tube based computation, binary numbers, and regenerative capacitor memory. Three years later the secret British Colossus computer hit the scene. This computer, which had limited programmability but at the same time still demonstrated that a device using thousands of tubes could be reasonably reliable and electronically reprogrammable. It was used during World War II to break German wartime codes. The Harvard Mark I came out the same year as the British Colossus, it is a large-scale electromechanical computer with limited programmability. Then two years later came the US Army's Ballistics Research Laboratory ENIAC, which used decimal arithmetic. It is considered the first general purpose electronic computer, although it initially had an inflexible architecture which essentially required rewiring to change its programming. Throughout the years computers have advanced so far ahead of the first computer made. These days you can do just about anything on your computer, same even find a time without computers next to impossible to fathom.