Who invented the first computer? That depends on your definition. It might come as some surprise that the first design of a programmable computer was created by a man named Charles Babbage in the early 1800s. He was well ahead of his time as the world had only recently developed steam power, and the electronic revolution hadn’t even occurred yet.
It wasn’t until a century later, around the time of World War II, that the first practical computers began to appear. The man credited with the idea of a universally programmable computer, like Charles Babbage a century earlier, was an Englishman named Alan Turing. His innovations enabled the creation of a calculating machine that helped the British Empire secretly decipher the Nazi communication codes during World War II and carry out some critical missions that undermined the Nazis and eventually led to a victory for the allies.
Alan’s revolutionary idea that he published in 1936 was for a computing device that could store any type of program into electronic memory and enable a computer to perform a wide variety of tasks. This concept which is still referred to as a “Turing machine” is at the heart of computerized devices today. Consequently, Turing is regarded as the father of the modern computer.
Years later, a colleague of Turing’s worked with others in the United States to build one of the first working machines that operated on the principals proposed by Turing. The first programmable electronic computer developed in the United States was the ENIAC machine. The machine was completed in 1945, and the project had been funded for the purpose of calculating artillery firing parameters for the U.S. Army, but the first program created for the computer was to compute the feasibility of a nuclear weapon. The machine was created at the University of Pennsylvania, and the press described it as a “giant brain.”
Problems that would take 20 hours for humans to solve could be done by the ENIAC in only 30 seconds. Although a modern smartphone is millions of times more powerful than the ENIAC, the giant machine was a monstrosity by today’s standards. Its cost was equivalent to about $7 million in modern dollars, and it took about two years to build. The final product contained 20,000 vacuum tubes, and it weighed nearly 30 tons. The machine occupied a space of nearly 2000 square feet.
The next innovation in computing that occurred in the 1940s was an automatic binary computing machine that is more similar to the design of modern computers. The most famous example of an early model of this machine is the UNIVAC I mainframe computer. It was involved in a farce where it predicted a landslide victory for Dwight Eisenhower in the presidential election when all other authorities were predicting a win for his opponent Adlai Stevenson. When Eisenhower won, CBS announced on air that they had deliberately covered up the predictions of the computer.