Hardly anything defines modern life better than the computer. Whether we like it or not, computers have infiltrated every aspect of our society. Today computers do much more than simply compute. For instance: supermarket scanners calculate our bill while keeping store inventory, computerized telephone switching centers play traffic cop to millions of calls and keep lines of communication untangled, and ATM's let us conduct banking transactions from virtually anywhere in the world. But where did all this technology come from and where is it heading? To fully understand and appreciate the impact computers have on our lives and promises they hold for the future, it is important to understand their evolution.
The real beginnings of computers start with an English mathematics professor, Charles Babbage. Frustrated at many errors he found while examining calculations for the Royal Astronomical Society, he declared, "I wish to God these calculations had been performed by steam!" With those words, the automation of computers had begun. By 1812, Babbage noticed a harmony between machines and mathematics: machines were best at performing tasks repeatedly without mistake, while mathematics often required a repetition of steps. The problem was applying the ability of machines to the needs of mathematics. Babbage's first attempt was in 1822 when he proposed a machine to perform differential equations, called a Difference Engine. It was powered by steam and large as a locomotive. The machine would have a stored program and could perform calculations and print the results automatically. After working on the Difference Engine for ten years, Babbage was suddenly inspired to begin work on the first general-purpose computer, which he called the Analytical Engine. Babbage's assistant, Augusta Ada King, daughter of poet Lord Byron, was instrumental in the machine's design. One of the few people who understood the Engine's design as well a