New innovations are usually stimulated by a problem that is important to an industry. The development of the computer came about during the nineteenth century as the result of the need for accurate star charts and maps as England developed into a world power. It was relatively easy for a ship to navigate from north to south because north of the equator the North Star provide a reference point. South of the equator the ships could navigate using the Southern Cross. The early Vikings stayed relatively close to shore so they were able to explore much of the known world including China where Viking artifacts have been found. The Vikings also explored the coastline of North America and possibly South America. When ships started to explore by sailing east to west they could easily get lost because the star and planetary charts were not dependable. Great Britain responded by creating a governmental entity called the Board of Longitude in 1714 which existed until 1828. A loss of several ships a few years before 1714 was the primary reason for the creation of a Board of Longitude.
About 1819, three elite graduates of the University of Cambridge were hired to work on charts and maps which required tedious calculations by hand. John Hershel, George Peabody, and Charles Babbage were hired to do this work but found it so tedious that they hired a mathematical savant whose primary talent was to do mathematical calculations in his head. Babbage was so vexed by the monotony of the work that he exclaimed, “It is too bad we do not have a machine to do the calculations for us.” He started on a lifelong quest to develop a mechanical computer to do such calculations.
He was advised by his friends to write up the idea and let others work out the details.
He was determined to proceed on his own and set up a workshop where he hired skilled machinists to develop a mechanical computer. His first machine was Difference No.1, followed by Difference No.2, which to my knowledge was never actually built, and finally the Analytical Engine which was completed by his son after Babbage died.
The following are some of the outcomes of Babbage’s efforts to build a mechanical computer:
1. Machine tools with fine tolerances because if multiplications and additions were to be done by mechanical means the gears had to be machined to fine tolerances.
2. Mechanical drawings which previously did not exist were developed and are still used in all kinds of industries. Mechanical drawings are now done on computers using sophisticated programs.
3. Punch cards to carry out mechanical calculations with a high degree of accuracy. Metal punch cards were already in use by the weaving industry which Babbage found when he toured England and Europe to learn the latest techniques in manufacturing. A company now known as IBM used punch cards for the 1890 census in the United States.
4. Babbage hired very skilled workman to carry out his work. One was named Enfield who became wealthy because he introduced spiral grooves in rifles and other munitions. The Enfield rifle was famed for its accuracy because it spun the bullet while in the barrel of the gun and greatly increased its accuracy. I recently learned that the Enfield rifle was used by the Confederate Army during the seige of Vicksburg. When the Southern soldiers surrendered to Grant’s Army they stacked their rifles as they left Vicksburg. Among those rifles were the newest Enfield rifles which the Northern Armies had never seen. Grant was happy to use these for the first time because they were breech loaded, more accurate, and safer than tamping black powder and lead bullets down a barrel.
5. Mechanical computers were still used in university labs during World War II.
6. The first semi-electronic computers used old style radio tubes to power the computers, but they were slow, generated great amounts of heat, and needed a great amount space.
7. The addition of a video screen such as I am now using to type this post was used by Xerox in their Palo Alto research Laboratory. Steve Jobs visited this laboratory and incorporated it into his first computer. He also visited the University of California who were using a computer language developed jointly with ATT&T called Unix. He adopted the Unix system which put it at odds with MS-DOS computers used by Microsoft which became the dominant computer system.
8. When Steve Jobs was fired from Apple he started his own computer company called NEXT which Apple purchased when Jobs was rehired as CEO of Apple. The NEXT computer used Unix as its operating system with one difference–it used Intel processors instead of the computer Power PC processors developed by IBM, Motorola, and Apple. When IBM failed to provide Apple with the most advanced computer processors, because it sold most of them to Sony and Microsoft, Jobs stopped using the Power PC processors and purchased Intel’s processors and ported over the Unix operating system to the computers using Intel chips. By doing this innovative switch, he was able to run both Apples’ operating system and MS DOS, the operating system used by Microsoft. A program called Parallels is a software program which allows both Apple software and Microsoft to operate on an Apple computer using Intel processors without rebooting the computer. I now have an Apple MacMini computer which has an Intel processor so I could use both Microsoft and Apple software on the same computer. At present, I still have four Power PC Mac computers which are still very usable, but the software written for these computers is slowly becoming obsolete because the market for them is very small.
9. The process of innovation continued with printers and the internet which allowed paper copies and high speed communication which now spans every country. Internet speeds have increased dramatically from the early telephone to coaxial cable which I use. Typewriters have basically become extinct with the use of the word processor which is part of every computer program. Electronic mail in the form of emails and faxes have replaced the teletypes which were used for many years. Many newspapers and magazines are now available in digital forms so that the print media has given way to reporters who work for blogs such as the Huffington Post. Blogs such as this one allow me to communicate with anyone who cares to subscribe. The social media has allowed groups of people to communicate with one another. I have one in which many of my family members subscribe.
10. The last innovation I read about in the latest Popular Science Magazine describes the use of three dimensional printers which allow the production of human body parts which in the future can be made to order for a particular person since one size does not fit all. This is still in the development stage as far as I know.
11. I recently received a Kindle Paper White so I can now read digital books in low light, no light or bright sunlight. There are applications so that one can also read the books on the computer, but I like reading in bed and my Kindle is small enough, about 6 inches by 4 inches and can be read horizontally or vertically. Some of the novels are 99 cents, others like the Lewis and Clark expedition funded by my relative, President Thomas Jefferson, are more expensive.
12. I was once asked where I got my information for my blog. Most of it is out of my own head, but I also use the internet to look up information on the articles I write. For this post I referred back to the dissertation I wrote for my Ph.D. My dissertation was entitled Charles Babbage, Philosopher, Reformer, Inventor: A History of His Contributions to Science, by Walter Lyle Bell(1975). This took me about 4 years to complete because I had to get some of my materials from the British Museum. I had to wait almost 9 months to receive materials from Great Britain because the postal workers went on strike for the first time in British history. I also had to use interlibrary loans through the library at Oregon State University, which also took extra time. My Major Professor went to Denmark on a leave of absence while I was writing the first, second or third drafts, so that took extra time. Also, the dissertation is 393 pages so the length alone was time consuming.