In recent posts on food, we’ve examined eats that were arguably more American than apple pie. While not as popular as ketchup and pizza, computers, according to a Census Bureau report, are in 84% of US households.

In the Family Trivium home, we have more than one and it seems like we are still always competing to use them to complete homework, pay bills, research upcoming purchases, and last, but not least, work on It seems like modern Americans do almost everything with their computers, and without stopping to appreciate these devices and how they came to be.

Once again turning to the ever present Merriam-Webster dictionary, we find that a computer is:

an electronic machine that can store and work with large amounts of information

This is a serviceable definition to explain a modern computer, but we can gain more insight from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

1640s, “one who calculates,” agent noun from compute (v.)…

William Harris has written an article over at, that condenses a fairly comprehensive understanding of the earliest development of what we think of today as a computer. In it, we learn that the first “computers” were in fact persons whose occupation was to perform calculations and enter the results into tables referenced by others. Harris’s examples include aiming artillery shells and calculating taxes.

According to Harris, the first device resembling our modern conception of the computer was developed by British mathematician Charles Babbage. By 1832, Babbage had developed a prototype of the “Difference Engine” which is designed to make tables. Subsequently, Babbage designed the “Analytical Engine” to take data input on punched cards, perform more complex calculations, including multiplication and division, and then record the results on paper.  Babbage’s designs were more ambitious than his times would allow, but in 1991 his design was proved out when two functional copies of his “Difference Engine” were built to his specifications.

Stay tuned for future posts where we’ll take a look at the evolution of the mechanical device into a more modern form.


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