100 All-Time Computer Greats - Part 2 from issue 34

Mel Croucher’s historic encyclopaedia of the people and events that changed the world of computing. Cartoons by Robin Evans.


POPE SYLVESTER II. As readers with long memories will recall, I proved last month that computers have been around for thousands of years, but it was not until 967 AD that there is any concrete evidence of a calculating machine in Europe, and everyone knows that concrete was invented by the Romans. In that year, the Pope had gone for his hols to Spain, but as Benidorm had yet to be invented, he dossed down with some Arab guys who let him play with their balls on the abacus. Well, what do you expect from a Pope who names himself after a cartoon cat?


JOHN NAPIER was a Scottish mathematician, and in 1614 he invented log tables. Before this date everyone ate off the floor. Napier was a bit of a wee pranny, and used the logarithm base ‘e’ for reasons that he kept to himself, but in 1628 another Scot named HENRY BRIGGS computed the logs of all the natural numbers up to 100,000 using the base ‘10’. Fortunately, all this is completely irrelevant to the history of computers because John Napier’s real claim to computing fame is his calculator known as NAPIER’S BONES. These strips of bone had numbers printed on them, and were held in a sort of Scrabble tray. They made mechanical multiplication possible for the very first time, and traditional sex became a thing of the past.



EDMUND GUNTHER got smart in 1620, when he ripped off Napier’s Bones, and turned them into a single ruler named, with devastating lack of imagination, GUNTHER’S SCALE, whereupon multiplication and division was achieved with a set of dividers. But rip-off merchants never prosper, unless their name is WILLIAM OUGHTRED, who ripped off Gunther the following year by fitting one scale inside another and calling it the SLIDE RULE. His invention was used by spotty little bores for the next 350 years, and we should all be eternally grateful to him for keeping them out of our way for so long.


WILLIAM SCHIECKARD was the original mad German professor, complete with Gothic horror laboratory, hunchback and a crow named Tubingen (Would I lie to you?). Sometime before 1630, he devised the first ever mechanical calculator in the form of a gigantic sort of fruit machine, with beer barrels for spools, wooden cogs and leather belts. I need hardly tell you that he was burned to death in a spooky sort of wierdo type made German professor Gothic horror inferno kind of a way, along with Tubingèn and his uncompleted calculating machine. Eat your heart out Vincent Price.

Fruit machine with hunckback


BLAISE PASCAL may well have been faking the rise out of poor old William Schieckard when he chose his fiery Christian name, but nonetheless he was a clever little bleeder. In 1643, when he was only n-n-n-nineteen, he went and built the first working mechanical computer which could add and subtract faster than the checkout girl in Tescos, and display the result in a dinky little window. He went on to palent over 50 mind-boggling inventions, including the barometer and the hydraulic press, before he died totally clapped out at the age of 39. Nobody likes a smartarse, especially a French one.


GOTTFRIED LEIBNIZ was an even more nauseating kid, but he was a Kraut, so that’s alright. He was only 10 when he figured out that Pascal’s machine was totally useless when it came to calculating two dozen tins of cat food at the checkout. So all he did was to invent a stepped wheel with nine teeth of different lengths, and automatic multiplication had arrived by 1680. Last time I went to Tescos, they had still forgotten to inform the checkout girl of this fact.


JOSEPH JACQUARD. Absolutely nothing happened in the world of computers for 120 years, and some of those checkout girls were getting a bit long in the tooth. Then, in Paris, Joseph Jacquard revolutionised computer aided design with a truly brilliant concept. He invented the punch card. Not only that, but he realised that he could encode, store and retrieve any information he wanted on his system. This guy was a genius. He predated today’s robotics by youths then he demonstrated a weaving machine banging out user-controlled patterns. They said his robots would put thousands of weavers out of work. Now where have I heard that before?

Weaving robot


CHARLES XAVIER THOMAS DE COLMER had a very long and very silly name, and in 1820 set the course of computing going backwards by adding a hand crank to the mechanical calculator. The expression. "I’m going for a Colmer" was not superseded until the invention of the Wankel engine.


CHARLES BABBAGE was the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day. He was an egomaniac, reckless and very, very rich. He was also a brilliant innovator. In 1822 he spent a fortune on building the first clockwork digital computer, and true to form, the £17,000 bill was picked up by everyone in town except himself. His DIFFERENCE ENGINE is today in the possession of IBM UK Ltd, and it is an amazing sight. It was intended to solve complex equations, planetary movements, economic forecasts, and horse racing form. trouble was it didn’t work. The tools and metal alloys of the Nineteenth century were simply unable to meet the tolerance Babbage needed. He was still at it when he died, aged 79, trying to drive the damn thing by steam to make the calculations faster. What a guy! What a schmuck!


JULES VERNE (1828-1905), H G WELLS (1866-1946), ARTHUR C CLARK (b.1917). Hardware is junk without applications. Computers need artists, thinkers, writers and holy fools to fulfil their real potential, and I happen to think that without SF writers, and the ideas they seeded in fiction, the boffins would never have been able to indulge in the lateral thinking that made their predictions turn into fact. Of all my One Hundred All Time Computer Greats, thirty five is the most important, and I’ve chosen three SF writers who did most to teach us that nothing is impossible. That’s my opinion and you’re stuck with it. All I will do is list a few of their horribly correct predictions. JULES VERNE: the electric light, the radio telephone, submarine warfare, zero gravity, interplanetary rocket flight. H G WELLS: powered flight, aerial bombing, chemical warfare, television, the video disc, robot assembly lines, the Sony Walkman, evangelical propaganda via the media, acid rain. the credit card, the First World War, the Second World War, the pop-up toaster, Global Thermo-nuclear war, the micro computer. ARTHUR C CLARK: the space station, the geostationary satellite, direct broadcasting from satellite, bomb disposal by robot, speech synthesis, the video phone, computer-generated military catastrophe. And if you don’t believe the bit about the pop-up toaster, read ‘The Sleeper Wakes’ written at the turn of the century, it is awesomely accurate.

Three headed writer


DORR FELT. America was still very much of a new idea in 1884, and they were naming their inventors after draught exciuders. So it was that a Yank named Dorr Felt happened on old Self Abuse De Colmer’s punch cards, mated them with a typewriter, and came up with something that we would recognise today as a desk-top computer. The COMPTOMETER was a key-operated adding machine with a paper print out, and the days of the little old guy with the quill pen and the dusty ledger were numbered, to coin a phrase.


HERMAN HOLLERITH. Modern computing starts here. Sorry to waste your precious time with all the historical stuff, but you never know what a little learning can do. In the Year of Our Lord 1890 Herman Hollerith gave birth to a tabulating machine which was a glorified version of our old friend the punch-card analyser. It processed the USA Census of that year in record time with record accuracy. The rest, as they say, is history. Hollerith’s company became IBM.


WILLIAM SEWARD BURROUGHS. By 1892 it was all happening in the States. Bill Burroughs revamped De Colmer’s 1820 machine, force fed it a typewriter with 90 keys, endowed it with a 9 decimal digit capacity, and produced the desk top calculator which led to the formation of the Burroughs Corporation in 1953.


LEE DEFOREST invented the electric valve in 1906, all it could do was to amplify weak signals via electrical current. He didn’t know it at the time, but he had just given birth to long distance radio, telephones, radar, television and the first electronic computers. As you have already noticed, the Yanks were still having trouble evolving into people, and insisted on adopting silly wooden names.

Puppet and gramaphone


VANNEVAR BUSH was a typical, silly, twig of a name. But Bush was a sharp cookie. If all those other guys were ripping-off long dead Frogs and Krauts, why shouldn’t he rip off an English stiff? He went and revamped an 1876 Royal Society paper given by Lord Kelvin, which cooly stated that it was dead easy to build a machine that would analyse differential equations, but the Brits were too laid back to actually do it. And so it came to pass that 50 years later Bush went and built the ultimate mechanical computer. called the DIFFERENTIAL ANALYSER. Because Bush was a very lazy man, he stuck a bucketful of valves in it to replace all those tedious clockwork relays. It was only then that Twiggy realised that numerical values could be stored as voltages in the valves. Wowie Zowie! it’s only 1936 and we’ve got a potential electronic computer as big as a bus and as useless as a pig in a synagogue.


KONRAD ZUSE. The British can claim responsibility for thwarting the birth of the first ‘real’ computer about four times by my reckoning. Herr Konrad Zuse was an enterprising young lad who built his first machine in his parent’s Berlin kitchen in 1936. I never knew he changed his name to Clive Sinclair, but he did call his wee prototype the Z-1. By 1939 his Z-2 had most of its mechanical relays replaced by electromagnets. Come 1945 and little Konrad informed Mutti und Papa that he had built the first computer that was program-controlled. He told them in German, of course. The RAF bombed it to bits in English, along with the rest of Berlin, and we will never know if he was telling the truth. That’s showbiz folks.

Clive in Nazi uniform


HO WARD AIKEN. Meanwhile, back in the USA, they were ripping off ideas from 1882, and applying Twentieth Century engineering to Babbage’s Nineteenth Century theories. In 1944 Howard Aiken had not only got himself a sensible name, but also put together something called the AUTOMATIC SEQUENCE CONTROLLED CALCULATOR: Mark I. It was 45 feet long, 8 feet high, contained 500 miles of wiring, three-quarters of a million components and no guarantee. Despite all these minor factors, it worked like a dream until it blew up in 1959.


Number forty three has already been covered in Part One of this wonderful trip through the time zone, under the name of ALAN TURING. As early as 1936 Turing’s revolutionary pamphlet ‘On Computable Numbers’ made the sci-fi dreams of thinking machines a distinct possibility. By 1943 he was working on the 2,000 valve based COLOSSOS series of machines. Data was fed in by paper tape at 5,000 characters per second, an incredible achievement at the time. But the whole thing was wrapped up in Top Secrecy and paranoia.


JOHN MAUCHLY & J PRESPER ECKERT. The year is 1945, the place is the University of Pennsylvania, USA. The machine is the ELECTRONIC NUMERICAL INTEGRATOR AND COMPUTER. The weight is 30 tons. The number of mechanical switches is 6,000. PIus 18,000 vacuum tubes, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors and a power drain equivalent to a medium sized town. Mr Mauchly and Mr Eckert put on a public demonstration whereby their wonderful machine multiplied the number 97,367 by itself 5,000 times. The calculation took less than half a second. Double wowie, double zowie! But don’t get too impressed, the machine couldn’t do anything else because it wasn’t programmable. Back to the drawing board guys. We mustn’t be too hard on our American cousins. Only three years after the first programmable computer had been built in Manchester, Mauchly and Eckbert came up with the UNIVAC-I, the first commercial computer in the world.

Computer giving birth to Mel


JOHN BARDEEN, WILLIAM SHOCKLEY & WALTER BRATTAIN won a Nobel Prize, and I’ll tell you why. In 1947 they invented the transistor. Miniaturisation was here to stay. The days of the overheating valve were over, the days of humanity plugged into Radio One while jogging, jugging and jiggajigging were just around the corner, but nobody believed them at the time. Valve manufacturers were churning them out at the rate of 200 million a year, and when the news of the transistor was announced — yawnnobody listened. Except a geezer named Masaru Ibuka, whose story is told a little later.


FRED WILLIAMS. The world’s first ever computer that was capable of storing programs made its first wee decision in Manchester University during the terrible winter of 1948, in celebration of the birth of Mel Croucher. Fred Williams is the guy credited with inventing the storage tube that made this possible, (the storing of programs, not my birth).


JAY FORRESTER was yet another American to be named after trees. I suspect that it all goes back to a primitive worship of those rustic log tables. In 1951 he completed the first real-time computer, and called it the WHIRLWIND I, because he couldn’t pronounce his Rs.


MASARU IBUKA ran a little outfit in Japan. One day he was visiting New York when he stumbled across a newspaper cutting about something called transistors, and discovered that the whole idea was up for grabs for the sum of $25,000. After a quick phone call home, he stumped up the cash, and nipped off home, where he made the first transistor radio in June 1954. Ibuka is probably the man most responsible for the shape of entertainment electronics today. He called his little company Sony.


JACK KILBY of Texas Instruments made the first silicon integrated circuit, the chip, in 1958. It measured about the size of a match head. It was the foundation of all today’s electronic and micros. This fact is verging on the tragic. I’ll tell you why. In 1952 the British engineer GEOFFREY DUMMER was smarter than his name, and drew up the plans for a microchip that would get rid of the need for all those resistors, capacitors or lumps of solder. In 1957 he even made a model of a ‘solid circuit’ in Malvern, England. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the British Government told Dummer to get stuffed, and his project, not to mention his patent, died. Ho hum.

Dummer stuffed on plate


FREDERICO FAGGIN. In November 1971, to celebrate Mel Croucher’s 23rd birthday, Frederico Faggin produced the first microprocessor, the INTEL 4004. It measured 0.117 inches by 0.159 inches, it could execute 92,000 instructions per second, and it changed the world.

This feature was typed in/OCRed by Iain

100 All-Time Computer Greats - Part 1