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A consuming passion for computers

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The British Medical Journal says the computer is one of fifteen major medical milestones. (If you think so, you can vote for it here.)

Brits have always been fascinated with computers. Among the many thousands of people worldwide who have made contributions to their development, Charles Babbage may be number one. His “consuming passion” produced the first digital computer in the 19th century. Lady Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter and a trained mathematician, collaborated with him. She is credited with writing the first computer programme.

Babbage is blazingly brilliant, but despite heroic attempts he cannot build his computer because the construction specifications are too demanding for the times. In 1991 a replica was built and was found to be Turing-complete – it can perform any computational task. More on Babbage’s story here.

When fighting for their lives in World War II, Brits made tremendous advances with computers in order to decipher German war messages. The Brits were a fascinating bunch, including the Classicist Dilly Knox, the mathematician Alan Turing, who is considered "the father of modern computer science," and Tommy Flowers and Dollis Hill who built the Colossus, an early electronic digital computer that compared data streams while exhibiting "strange rhythms. . .and wild leaps" . More on them here.

Our use of computers depends on Bayesian probability theory and Boolean logic, developed by Brits in the 18th and 19th centuries, and on the invention of www.

I think about how interesting the dinner party would be that pulled them all together – Babbage and Lady Ada with Alan Turing and Tommy Flowers and Tim Berners-Lee. Alas, their conversation would be far beyond me.

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