Computer, another origin

When talking about computer origin, people tend to think about chips, CPU, world war II and ENIAC, and in some occasions, date back to slide rule and Suanpan. This is also how it is taught in schools and universities. The logic behind this story line is, computer originated from the need for fast computing, especially arithmetic computing.

However, there’s another origin that is at least as important, has a longer history, and at least to some people, more fascinating. That is how the architecture of modern computer came into being. Computer nowadays is so powerful that sometimes it seems inconceivable to link it to its ancient ancestors. On the other hand, you only have to look into some of the remarkable masterpieces of the past to know the linkage is simply undeniable.

A recent BBC program I watched, “Mechanical Marvels – Clockwork Dreams” showed one of such remarkable masterpieces: A mechanical machine boy that is able to write up to 40 letters of text, depending on the configuration, built back in 1770s.

What makes it remarkable is, the fact that the text is customizable. That means, the mechanical boy is programmable.

Of course, it’s still an Finite State Machine, but being programmable, that means adding scratch memory to it and then it will be a complete Turing Machine!

It’s actually from this origin where techniques were developed for modern computer scientists to deal with abstract topics like computational complexity, formal language.