Who Invented the Computer?
Part 7 of a #ReadWithMe series on Matt Ridley’s How Innovation Works
It looks like a question easy enough to answer. It is not.
“The origination of the computer is as mysterious and confusing as that of far more ancient and uncertain innovations. There is nobody who deserves the accolade of the inventor of the computer. There is instead a regiment of people who made crucial contributions to a process that was so incremental and gradual, cross-fertilized and networked, that there is no moment or place where it can be argued that the computer came into existence”.
For Matt Ridley, four are the features of the computer which make it different from a calculator: it must be digital, electronic, programmable, and capable of carrying out whatever logical task, at least in principle. Walter Isaacson finds the turning point in the ENIAC, which begun operations in 1945 at the University of Pennsylvania. Ridley doesn’t agree: a better candidate would be Colussus, the computer built in Britain during World War II to crack the German codes. Who should take the credit then? “The construction was led largely by an engineer named Tommy Flowers, a pioneer of using vacuum tubes in complex telephone circuits, and his boss was the mathematician Max Newman, but they consulted Alan Turing”.
Ridley’s chapter on the origin of the computer is a delight. He goes back, up to Charles Babbage, to prove that ENIAC (and for that matter) the modern computer was not “so much invented as evolved through the combination and adaptation of precursor ideas and machines”.
Writes Ridley “the deeper you look, the less likely you are to find a moment of sudden breakthroughs, rather than a series of small incremental steps”. We tend to think differently because, as I mentioned earlier, we tend to search for visible hands, for clear moments of changes, for Innovator with a capital “i”. What escapes this picture is how much innovation is a matter related with feedback mechanisms. In a sense, I think this is perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Ridley’s book: he uses plenty of interesting stories of innovators, but he never gets tired of explaining that their brilliant undertakings need to be received by consumers – and so sometimes they were adapted, used in different contexts, and became useful in a previously unpromising and unforeseen circumstances. In this sense, “innovation is the child of freedom”, Ridley explains, “because it is a free, creative attempt to satisfy freely expressed human designs”.