Inside the Collection

More than Just Digital: Before the Computer

Imagine life before smart phones, maybe you remember? What about before computers? Our computer technology looks a lot different today than it did in the past. It’s smaller, lighter, more powerful and a whole lot faster. But who invented the first computer and what did we do before them?

Photograph of mathematical objects
MAAS Collection from top left; Mechanical calculator made in Sweden by Facit, 1950 (K452); Abacus made in China (H8739-2); Mechanical calculator and case, Curta Type II, 1960 (85/1693); Slide rule and case made by Hemmi, Japan (H9443). Image: Marinco Kojdanovski, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

Before the first computer, we used people to do the work that computers manage today. Things like counting money in our banks, keeping track of census data and even the calculations for our rockets at places like NASA!  To help make their jobs easier, people who worked with numbers used different tools like an abacus, a slide rule, or even a mechanical calculator.

Despite these aids, calculations often took a long time and people made mistakes. The English mathematician, Charles Babbage, imagined a better way of doing things. He hoped to relieve people of the ‘routine mental labour’ of repetitive mathematics, and eliminate human error. To this end he imagined two different machines, one of which he started to build.

This is a segment of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine No 1, which was a mechanical calculating machine for the purpose of producing mathematical tables. He worked on his difference engine for 11 years but was never able to complete it.

Babbage Difference Engine No 1 calculating engine
In 1879 Charles Babbage’s son Henry assembled this portion of the Difference Engine from original parts after his father’s death. It was one of six specimens constructed to demonstrate the addition and carry mechanism. MAAS Collection: 96/203/1. Image: Ryan Hernandez, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

Babbage’s Difference Engine was different from other early calculators in both its design and intention as well as the purpose of its construction. Unlike other computing machines of the time someone with no mathematical knowledge could turn the required handles to generate the correct answers, provided the machine had been set up by a skilled operator. It would then be capable of solving successive values of polynomials, without any further input required.

In addition to his Difference Engine Babbage also developed a second idea, although it was not realised as anything more than plans and a few test pieces. It was a machine capable of finding the values for any algebraic function. This Analytical Engine, as he called it, anticipated the principles and structures of the modern computer. It was to be a general purpose, programmable machine, in which the storage of information was a separate function to the processing of information. Unfortunately it was never built and we had to wait another 100 years for his ideas to be resurrected.

Photograph of the Enigma
This is an encryption device commonly referred to as an Enigma. The Enigma was a rotor-based code machine used by various branches of the German military before, during and after World War II. MAAS Collection: 94/90/1. Image: Jane Townsend, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

You may recognise this device as an Enigma machine, a mechanical device used to encode and decode German messages during World War II. While not a computer itself, the solving of its puzzle played an important role in computer design and development.

Much of the effort to break Enigma’s code took place at Bletchley Park, the home of the British Government Code and Cipher School (GC&CS) during World War II. The Bletchley Park codebreakers used special computing devices called Bombes to decipher Enigma-encoded messages.  The Bombes, invented by Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman, were electromechanical codebreaking machines that sped up the deciphering of the code each day.

The Enigma machine also influenced further design advances in other cipher machines during the war. Which prompted reciprocal advances in the computing devices used to decode them at Bletchley Park.  For example, the Colossus designed to break a later more sophisticated code machine, was partially inspired by the Bombes created to combat Enigma.  Colossus is generally recognised as the first semi-programmable computer.

Based in part on his experiences with Enigma and the Bombes, Alan Turing continued his research in the area of computers after the war.  He eventually produced the Automatic Computing Machine (ACE) one of the earliest digital electronic computer designs.

4 responses to “More than Just Digital: Before the Computer

  • Did one of Alan Turing’s contemporaries speak at the Powerhouse Museum some time about 1996 – 1998? I saw a speaker there in that time period who I think knew and worked with him, can’t recall the details now of who it was though.

    • Hello Dave,
      I had a chat with our Principal Curator, Matthew Connell, who recalls Professor Peter Hilton caming to the museum in 1996 and possible 1998 as well. He would have spoken about Turing (who he was good friends with) and how they approached breaking the Geheimschreiber codes (which was a high level code used by the German High command).

      Hope that helps,

    • Hello Adrian,
      Sadly the Babbage Difference Engine No.1 is not currently on public display. You can read more about it at this link:
      We do have a fabulous exhibition on the floor at the moment called Interface which explores how design has been applied to information technology products.
      Our online collection search will always let you know if an object is on display at any given time.


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