Those who cannot learn from history are destined to repeat it. (– various attributions)
Great quote. But learning from the past can be tricky…
While thumbing through a copy of New Scientist I came across a reference to a German by the name of Konrad Zuse. What I read suggested that this man was the first to build a working Turing-complete computer (the ‘Z3’), in May 1941. I found this to be an odd assertion, because I, with hubris powered by my batchelor’s degree in computer science, had believed that the first such machine was the Colossus Mark I, designed and built by a largely unsung British hero, Tommy Flowers. The Colossus was working in December 1943; though it’s possible to split hairs between ‘Turing-complete’ and ‘programmable electronic computer’, Flowers’ achievement was still two and a half years after that of Zuse’s.
I recall an altercation with the American father of a friend of mine who was, some years ago now, outraged by my (arguably incorrect, as it turns out) assertion that the British invented the computer. I was thinking of Tommy Flowers. Where my friend’s dad was coming from was an education system that had probably told him that the world’s first computer was ENIAC. It’s interesting to note that, as I write, Wikipedia claims that ENIAC was ‘the first electronic general-purpose computer’, and indicates that it was working in February 1946. That’s almost five years after Zuse.
The missing part of the puzzle here is, of course, the story of World War II. Britain and the USA were, I think it’s fair to presume, unaware of the German work in the field — and (again, presumably) vice versa. Britain’s work was covered under the UK’s Official Secrets Act and not made available even to the British public until many years later. It’s my understanding that the British work on computing was handed over to the US Government (via the Tizard Mission) as part repayment for their intervention under the Lend-Lease agreement; but that’s just splitting more hairs.
Of course, none of this touches on the work of Charles Babbage, the genius who designed the Analytical Engine in the 19th century, nor the Greek Antikythera Mechanism, thought to date from around 100BC. But I suppose that they don’t count because those were analog machines, not digital ones.
I think the main point I’m trying to make is that you can only learn from history if you have all the facts; and, all too often, those facts are obscured by the passage of time — as well as the politics of the time, too.