The History of Computers in the 1800s

Updated November 21, 2016

Computers did not suddenly appear in the late 20th century. They have been around since ancient times. We have used counting devices such as the abacus and the Salamis Tablet since 300 B.C. Blaine Pascal created an adding machine in 1642. Leonardo Da Vinci drew a diagram for a complex computer. The 1800s are sometimes referred to as "the era of inventions." The Industrial Revolution accelerated thought, experimentation and development. Computers, as well as other technology, benefit greatly from this creative and inventive time.

Programming with Punch Cards

Punch cards programmed the first automated loom, invented by Frances Joseph-Marie Jacquard in 1804. The Jacquard loom wove cloth in patterns determined by the punch cards, revolutionising the weaving industry. At the time, Monsieur Jacquard's invention was not popular. Too many weavers lost their jobs to this machine. Modern workers may not find this invention very endearing, either -- the punch cards used by this loom were the predecessors to today's time clock punch cards.

Charles Thomas de Colmar

Calculators, the predecessors of computers, came into their own during the 1800s. Charles Thomas de Colmar invented a calculator that was a commercial success in 1820. This calculator was the first calculator capable of performing division.

Charles Babbage

With the help of a government grant, Charles Babbage invented the Difference Engine in 1821. Babbage's engine was the first machine to automatically calculate. Working with Ada Lovelace, Babbage attempted to create the first digital computer but died before he finished. His work on the machine, which he called the Analytical Machine, was carried on by his son.

Ada Lovelace

At a time when many women still couldn't read, Ada Lovelace was writing scientific papers. Officially the Countess of Lovelace, Ada maintained a friendship with Charles Babbage that started when she was 17 years old. The Countess became the first computer programmer by inventing a method of calculation using punch cards.

Toshiba and IBM

Two computer powerhouses got their start in the 1800s. Toshiba got its original start in 1875 as Tanaka Seizo-sho. IBM was founded in 1896 by Herman Hollerith as the Tabulating Machine Company, later becoming International Business Machines. In addition to founding IBM, Mr. Hollerith also had another impact on the future of computers by refining punch cards for use in the U.S. Census.

Other 1800s Inventions Relevant to Computers

Thomas Edison's inventions during the second half of the 1800s contributed greatly to the computer industry. The debut of the incandescent light bulb in 1879 and his discovery of the Edison Effect in 1883 had indirect but important implications for the future development of computers. Friedrich Reintzer was another inventor who indirectly contributed to the computer field with his discovery of liquid crystal in 1888.

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About the Author

Monika Weise has been a writer of both fiction and nonfiction since 1988. Her diverse experience includes publishing fiction in "Secrets" magazine, writing plays for the Live Wires acting group and creating manuals for area businesses. Weise is working toward a Bachelor of Arts degree in anthropology at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis.