How Computing all began

Datum / Uhrzeit:
17.10.19   /  14:30 - 16:00

Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf

Hörsaal 2B, Geb.22.01


The computer has become an established fact of life around the world. How did this happen? Who decided that we should make computers at all and make them available to people generally? Who, then, got it going, and why? And where? And, more astonishingly, when?

The well-known originators of modern computers were, amongst others, Alan Turing, Maurice Wilkes, J. Presper Eckert, von Neumann, David Wheeler and Freddie Williams, while there are many more who need to be remembered.

The emergence of computers has in fact been a long story – perhaps a thousand years and more, involving people long lost to history, as well as historical characters – right up to today. Was it brought about by a single, identifiable group of people, or, like the bow and arrow, did it emerge in different places?

All this time we have seen the computer steadily increase its range of applicability, as ideas have grown and memory sizes increase, from simple applications like doing the payroll, to the latest and most exciting, the advent of Artificial Intelligence in all its powerful promise of delving into the depths of humanity.

In an attempt to obtain a comprehensive answer to these questions, we have invited one of the last living witnesses of the early modern computer era to hold a talk based on his pioneering experiences. 


Norman Sanders, at 90 years, is one of the few surviving pioneers of the early modern computer era, but is still energetically imbued with the spirit of computer builders such as Alan Turing, Konrad Zuse, Pres Eckert and Maurice Wilkes and programming language creators such as John Backus, Heinz Rutishauser, Peter Naur and Grace Murray Hopper, and knew personally also many others of this now ancient breed, of whom you have never heard.

When digital computers began to become available during the 1940s, they needed programming. The consequent need for programmers was slow to emerge. Nevertheless, Cambridge University, where the EDSAC, one of the first computers, was up and running, started to welcome graduates to learn the new trade. Norman Sanders was one of these graduates. Eventually, he needed to find employment in a world where virtually none existed. It became his job to try to solve this problem, which he did by moving around the world finding empty computers to programme, creating computing departments, writing books, making speeches, giving lectures and generally coupling the machinery to its profitable application wherever he could find it.

This took him from Britain to such countries as Canada, the United States, Norway, Italy, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Australia, spreading the word. He worked in universities, industrial companies and the United Nations – and eventually for the British Prime Minister. He pioneered using the computer to draw lines and make things, as well as print numbers. This included inventing the system called Computer-Aided Design (CAD), one of the most globally-used manufacturing tools.


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