When the story of an invention is repeated as Received Opinion for the younger generation it is so often presented as a single one-off event, with a named inventor. Before the event there was no invention, then as if by magic it was there. That apple falling on Isaac Newton’s head, or Archimedes overflowing his bath, you’ve heard the stories. The inventor’s name will sometimes differ depending on which country you are in when you hear the story, which provides an insight into the flaws in the simple invention tales. The truth is in so many cases an invention does not have a single Eureka moment, instead the named inventor builds on the work of so many others who have gone before and is the lucky engineer or scientist whose ideas result in the magic breakthrough before anyone else’s.
The history of computing is no exception, with many steps along the path that has given us the devices we rely on for so much today. Blaise Pascal’s 17th century French mechanical calculator, Charles Babbage and Ada, Countess Lovelace’s work in 19th century Britain, Herman Hollerith’s American tabulators at the end of that century, or Konrad Zuse’s work in prewar Germany represent just a few of them.
So if we are to search for an inventor in this field we have to be a little more specific than “Who invented the first computer?”, because there are so many candidates. If we restrict the question to “Who invented the first programmable electronic digital computer?” we have a much simpler answer, because we have ample evidence of the machine in question. The Received Opinion answer is therefore “The first programmable electronic digital computer was Colossus, invented at Bletchley Park in World War Two by Alan Turing to break the Nazi Enigma codes, and it was kept secret until the 1970s”.
It’s such a temptingly perfect soundbite laden with pluck and derring-do that could so easily be taken from a 1950s Eagle comic, isn’t it. Unfortunately it contains such significant untruths as to be rendered useless. Colossus is the computer you are looking for, it was developed in World War Two and kept secret for many years afterwards, but the rest of the Received Opinion answer is false. It wasn’t invented at Bletchley, its job was not the Enigma work, and most surprisingly Alan Turing’s direct involvement was only peripheral. The real story is much more interesting.