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Top 10 most important people in the history of computers

  • John von Neuman
  • Charles Babbage
  • Steve Jobs
  • Alan Turing
  • Tommy Flowers
  • Douglas Engelbart
  • Don Estridge
  • Gordon Moore
  • Bill Gates
  • Tim Berners-Lee

It's hard to imagine a world without computers, so reliant on them we've become. What makes this more surprising is that computers, although considered and thought about for a long time, have only recently (in terms of history) been available. The profound impact they've had on our lives, both directly and indirectly with the inventions and technologies they've helped create, make them one of the most important inventions in human history. This week we've rounded up the ten most important people in the history of computers. We've listed them in rough chronological order, so that numbering's not really important and there are bound to be some people that we've had to miss off the list.

10. Charles Babbage (26 December 1791 - 18 October 1871)

Charles Babbage first came up with the idea of a mechanical computer after seeing how numerical tables calculated by humans (called computers) had a high-degree of error. He decided that by creating a device for doing the same job, the errors could be eliminated. The difference engine was born: a machine capable of calculating the values of polynomial functions automatically. Sadly, although funding was in place, the difference engine was never completed.

Charles BabbageNot deterred, Babbage turned his hand to the Difference Engine No. 2, an improve calculating machine, and the Analytical Engine, which was the first programmable computer in existence. He even drew up plans for the first printer. Babbage died before any of his designs could be built, but his influence should not be underestimated and his designs inspired other people to work on computers.

His work has since been proved viable. The Difference Engine No. 2 was constructed between 1989 and 1991 at the London Science Museum, using 19th century manufacturing tolerances: it worked (and continues to work) perfectly, performing calculations to 31 digits. His printer was also constructed and shown to work - proof of Babbage's genius.

Regardless of the fact that his computer was never built while he was alive, Babbage opened the floodgates to a new world of computing machines. Without him, we may not have the modern computers we have today.

9. Alan Turing (23 June 1912 - 7 June 1954)

Alan Turing was principally a mathematician, most famous for helping break the German's Enigma code during World War II at Bletchley Park. It was here, though, that Turing turned to computers to help break codes faster, saving millions of lives in the process and shortening the length of the war.

Alan TuringThe initial machine Turing created was the Bombe: an electromechanical device devised to help the code-breakers device the key of the day the German's were using on their Enigma machines. Using a menu provided by the codebreaking team from a crib (a selection of plaintext that corresponded to ciphertext), the Bombe operators could quickly set up the machine and let it calculate possible Enigma settings, which could then be verified by hand. The design on the Bombe was enhanced by Gordon Welchman, and the rest, as they say, is history.

After the war Turing was an influential figure and came up with the Turing Test: a method by which to test artificial intelligence. Prosecuted for homesexual acts, Turing committed suicide in 1954, and we'll never know the full extent of where his fierce intellect could have led us.

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