History of Computing - Early Computation

Early Computation

The earliest known tool for use in computation was the abacus, and it was thought to have been invented in Babylon circa 2400 BC. Its original style of usage was by lines drawn in sand with pebbles. Abaci, of a more modern design, are still used as calculation tools today. This was the first known computer and most advanced system of calculation known to date - preceding Greek methods by 2,000 years.

In 1110 BC, the South Pointing Chariot was invented in ancient China. It was the first known geared mechanism to use a differential gear, which was later used in analog computers. The Chinese also invented a more sophisticated abacus from around the 2nd century BC known as the Chinese abacus).

In the 5th century BC in ancient India, the grammarian Pāṇini formulated the grammar of Sanskrit in 3959 rules known as the Ashtadhyayi which was highly systematized and technical. Panini used metarules, transformations and recursions.{}

The Antikythera mechanism is believed to be the earliest known mechanical analog computer. It was designed to calculate astronomical positions. It was discovered in 1901 in the Antikythera wreck off the Greek island of Antikythera, between Kythera and Crete, and has been dated to circa 100 BC.

Mechanical analog computer devices appeared again a thousand years later in the medieval Islamic world and were developed by Muslim astronomers, such as the equatorium by Arzachel, the mechanical geared astrolabe by Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī, and the torquetum by Jabir ibn Aflah. According to Simon Singh, Muslim mathematicians also made important advances in cryptography, such as the development of cryptanalysis and frequency analysis by Alkindus. Programmable machines were also invented by Muslim engineers, such as the automatic flute player by the Banū Mūsā brothers, and Al-Jazari's humanoid robots and castle clock, which is considered to be the first programmable analog computer.

During the Middle Ages, several European philosophers made attempts to produce analog computer devices. Influenced by the Arabs and Scholasticism, majorcan philosopher Ramon Llull (1232–1315) devoted a great part of his life to define and design several logical machines that, by combining simple and undeniable philosophical truths, could produce all the possible knowledge. These machines were never really built, as they were more of a thought experiment devoted to the production of new knowledge by systematic ways; although they could make simple logical operations, they still needed a human being for interpretation of results. Moreover, they lacked a versatile architecture, each machine serving only to very concrete purposes. No matter what, Llull's work had a severe impact on Gottfried Leibniz (early 18th century), who redeveloped his ideas further and could build several calculating tools with them.

Indeed, when John Napier discovered logarithms for computational purposes in the early 17th century, there followed a period of considerable progress by inventors and scientists in making calculating tools. The apex of this early era of formal computing can be seen in the difference engine and its successor the Analytical Engine, which was never completely constructed but was designed in detail, both by Charles Babbage. The analytical engine combined concepts from his work and that of others to create a device that if constructed as designed would have possessed many properties of a modern electronic computer. These properties include such features as an internal "scratch memory" equivalent to RAM, multiple forms of output including a bell, a graph-plotter, and simple printer, and a programmable input-output "hard" memory of punch cards which it could modify as well as read. The key advancement which Babbage's devices possessed beyond those created before his was that each component of the device was independent of the rest of the machine, much like the components of a modern electronic computer. This was a fundamental shift in thought; previous computational devices served only a single purpose, but had to be at best disassembled and reconfigured to solve a new problem. Babbage's devices could be reprogramed to solve new problems by the entry of new data, and act upon previous calculations within the same series of instructions. Ada Lovelace took this concept one step further, by creating a program for the analytical engine to calculate Bernoulli numbers, a complex calculation requiring a recursive algorithm. This is considered to the first example of a true computer program, a series of instructions that act upon data not known in full until the program is run.

Several examples of analog computation survived into recent times. A planimeter is a device which does integrals, using distance as the analog quantity. Until the 1980s, HVAC systems used air both as the analog quantity and the controlling element. Unlike modern digital computers, analog computers are not very flexible, and need to be reconfigured (i.e., reprogrammed) manually to switch them from working on one problem to another. Analog computers had an advantage over early digital computers in that they could be used to solve complex problems using behavioral analogues while the earliest attempts at digital computers were quite limited.

Since computers were rare in this era, the solutions were often hard-coded into paper forms such as nomograms, which could then produce analog solutions to these problems, such as the distribution of pressures and temperatures in a heating system.

None of the early computational devices were really computers in the modern sense, and it took considerable advancement in mathematics and theory before the first modern computers could be designed.

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