[SIGCIS-Members] The latest inventor of the computer

Thomas Haigh thomas.haigh at gmail.com
Thu Mar 23 13:48:12 PDT 2017

Better than the title, perhaps, but everything is relative.


To be fair, the article is doubling down on a version of computer history that is quite popular, particularly among non-historians. Given the reach of Davis’ book, not to mention Hofstadter, I’m not sure that all this is as unusual approach as the opening implies. My views on all this are on record in the CACM article “Actually, Turing Did Not Invent The Computer.” http://www.tomandmaria.com/Tom/Writing/CACMActuallyTuringDidNotInventTheComputer.pdf 


If you believe Copeland, Davis, and others who think that Turing invented the so-called "stored program" computer in 1936, then why not cut out the middle man? Going up the chain and handing the whole thing to Aristotle is only slightly more of a stretch. Dixon clearly does believe the Davis/Copeland version:


In contrast to Shannon’s paper, Turing’s paper is highly technical. Its primary historical significance lies not in its answer to the decision problem,  but in the template for computer design it provided along the way….


Turing showed how a program could be stored inside a computer alongside the data upon which it operates. In today’s vocabulary, we’d say that he invented the “stored-program” architecture that underlies most modern computers. [skipping quote from Davis] This was the first rigorous demonstration that any computing logic that could be encoded in hardware could also be encoded in software. The architecture Turing described was later dubbed the “Von Neumann architecture” — but modern historians generally agree it came from Turing, as, apparently, did Von Neumann himself.


Asserting that "modern historians generally agree" that the von Neumann architecture came from Turing’s paper seems like a rather dubious claim to me. Particularly if you read Turing’s paper and look for a von Neumann architecture in it. At the Early Digital workshop in January I raised the question explicitly with a fairly good sampling of “modern historians” and nobody present supported the idea.  


Another exaggeration: “Turing joined a secret unit at Bletchley Park, northwest of London, where he helped design computers that were instrumental in breaking German codes.” Bombes weren’t computers, and Turing didn’t help to design Colossus (which personally I don’t think was a computer either, but that’s more controversial).


People in the comments section seem to like it, but in an unusually highbrow example of internet discourse are calling out for more attention to the anitkythera device, Chrysippus, Pierce, Polish bombe creators, Thomas Aquinas, etc. Nobody seems to be objecting to the Turing claim, though someone does take the opportunity to insult Ada Lovelace.


Best wishes,




-----Original Message-----
From: Members [mailto:members-bounces at lists.sigcis.org] On Behalf Of Len Shustek
Sent: Thursday, March 23, 2017 3:11 PM
To: members at lists.sigcis.org
Subject: [SIGCIS-Members] The latest inventor of the computer


We're fully engaged in the invention of email, but we haven't had any new inventors of the computer in a while. The Atlantic is helping with that: "How Aristotle Created the Computer".

 <https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/03/aristotle-computer/518697/> https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/03/aristotle-computer/518697/

The article is rather better than its title.



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