A short history of computing

Feb 24, 2006

Miles Berry

Today I rounded off our Year 6 unit on Victorian Mathematics (which I meant to do last half term, when it was still their history topic, but you know how it is…), with a very quick tour of some bits of the history of computing and calculation. I have my father’s old 7 figure log tables, slide rule and first Sinclair calculator, which makes it that bit more personal.

One really great thing is how easy all the education-technology makes it to teach such anachronistic topics as slide rules: being able to demonstrate one on the big board via a visualizer is so much easier than holding up our yard long wooden demonstration slide rule that I found in the maths store. And of course there’s a virtual slide rule on the net for them to practise with.

Once I’d told them that log 10 was 1, and log 100 was 2, most of them got the idea, and a good number worked out log 0.1. Having convinced the class of the rules for multiplication, division, powers and roots, one bright spark asked “So what about things that don’t end in zeros?”, and so we had a go at using some log tables.

Another then wanted to know how they could work out the tables. I explained that they used computers, which was met with some scepticism. The notion that people used to be called computers struk them as really strange, but here’s the OED:

Computer: One who computes; a calculator, reckoner; spec. a person employed to make calculations in an observatory, in surveying, etc.

It then occured to them that this wasn’t a particularly reliable approach, which led us beautifully on to the story of Babbage and his Engines.

We had a look at some of the stuff from the Science Museum site, and they weren’t at all surprised to learn that the first programmer was a woman. Alas, I’ve not found a virtual Analytical Engine to show off, but I’ve put a link onto Moodle to a virtual Curta, so they can get something of a feel for mechanical calculators.

Homework’s a wiki based resarch task on and around Babbage. Coincidentaly, I spotted a piece in today’s TES about a calculator exhibition at Swindon’s Museum of Computing. School trip? Perhaps not.

Throughout the lesson, I had Dale Jone’s Pythonesque post in the the back of my mind.