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Why Care Who Invented the First Computer?

During January some of you might have noticed a running dialogue among historians and other interested parties about who invented the “first” computer. There was no agreement reached on the correct answer to that question. Discussions about “firsts” pop up about every five years, almost like short-lived brush fires on the side of the road as historians travel on to do their serious work. Over the past forty years I have seen articles and books, even one lawsuit on patents, over the question of “firsts.”

The interest in “firsts” is not limited just to computers, it seems to be all over the place regarding any modern technology, and it is not limited to historians, but includes those interested in patent protections, copyrights, or just plain old curiosity. It seems for many reasons “firsts” are interesting and important. In the movies it is the “aha” moment that we see when Madame Curie discovered radiation, or earlier Alexander Graham Bell made his first phone call. In recent years there have been discussions about the first PC, with suggestions that it may have been made in Eastern Europe, or that some guy did it in California in the early 1960s and didn’t tell anyone. Failure to exploit technological innovations is another source of conversation, with Xerox Park the perennial favorite for letting too many cool widgets slip by.

Many of these discussions, indeed most of them, are only interesting, not terribly relevant. While it would be great if we could identify the first person who made the first tooth brush and nail down the date of that glorious event, it is never going to happen. We cannot get agreement on when the first computer was built, although this year Colossus is ahead in the race; past contenders for that recognition have included MIT’s differential analyzer, ENIAC, EDVAC, and UNIVAC, each a champion in its own time.

The reason we cannot agree on which was the first computer, or even the first e-mail sent, or the first PC ever built is because computing and all other inventions normally emerge in an evolutionary manner. People take an existing device, and modify it so slightly; then someone else does the same thing to that modified device, and so forth, until such a point that (a) someone gives it a name and it takes off as the “first” of something or (b) when connected to something else becomes so useful that it now comes out of the shadows as if a brand new item. There were PCs in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but not until Apple and IBM were able to sell desktop computers in quantity did the notion of the PC finally take hold, with Apple doing its magic in the late 1970s, IBM in the early 1980s. Those are examples of the first type of innovation. That may be going on today with the humble light bulb as it evolves into something other than an incandescent bulb.

As for (b)—linking things together—connecting computers to telephone lines made possible online and telecommunications. Did that happen in 1940? In 1969? Or later with development of the World Wide Web? The answer is yes for each time. So, what are we to make of all this?

The takeaway is simple. All IT is really quite complex to invent, to make, to use, so much so that when you study specific examples in any detail, you realize no one individual could create all the elements involved. It was and remains an iterative process. Historians who have examined IT’s history tell that story continuously, such as Paul Ceruzzi, Tom Haigh, and Jeff Yost, to mention a few. They keep finding that “firsts” turn out to be “combinations,” “iterations,” “evolutions,” not one time spectacular events. And that is a core lesson about how computers came about and why the technology continues to evolve. Literally millions of people in over 100 countries are tinkering with hardware, software, components, computer science, uses, and ideas about information management. Bottom line, it is nearly impossible to be the “first” to invent anything as complex as a computer. Even developers of cell phone “apps” are building on each other’s prior work.

But, it still is fun to argue who invented the first computer or the first toothbrush.

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