World Bank Computer Room - 1972
My first day in a computer room took place in a secret location in London in 1966 (Putney), where the computer, (the biggest at the time) took up a whole floor, and had the computer power that today would be a joke. But I remember that the manager of us Computer Operators and Programmers told us “Computers are designed to reduce boring manual labor”.

Right. So how did computers come about?

From thousands of years ago, people in the East were desirous of counting machines. This resulted in the development of the Abacus. The abacus is still in use today, and there are great sites that study it’s use and variations. If you’re interested, start here. Believe it or not, remains of abaci have been found in Mexico, also dating back thousands of years! They remain in use today in China, and arrived in Europe in the 15th century with “accountants” who came to manage trade between Europe and North Africa and Asia.

Four Minutes to Twelve
You can even consider the watch as an early computer, as it “counted” time and was one of the first mechanical counting machines. The first watch was invented (we think) by Peter Heinlein in Germany in 1502. If you ask me, it’s totally absurd these days to own watches, as you can find out what time it is so easily. And to pay $$$$$$ for a watch is obscene. I suppose for specialized timekeeping, they have a role but no longer, for real people. How many people do you know that use watches any more?

Before the invention of the watch, people looked at the position of the sun (rising in the East and setting in the West, and figuring out when it was time for lunch), They also noted that the sun made shadows that moved during the day, and this led to the invention of sundials. While not being exactly mechanical, these devices were early human thinking about how to automate. Sundials were marked with the hours of the day, and showed the time by where the shadow fell on the dial. When you think about it, the watch is a mechanical version of the sundial. This was all very well if there was sunshine, but on cloudy days and at night, they did not work so well.

Six Period Candle
At some unknown time, some crafty person noted that candles burned at a certain rate (although King Alfred of England claimed credit), and if the candle was made carefully, it was predictable how long a day would last. So, we have another automation invention. The candle clock has also lasted thousands of years and you can still buy them. You can still buy sundials too. It’s important to remember that it was not until the 19th century that time was measured uniformly. Most places based their time on sunlight and the stars. People counted time in any way that was useful to them, as you can see from the picture. This day was measured in units of 6 “hours”.

Time as we know it was first defined by the
Egyptians, 3500 years ago. The decided a day consisted of one 10 hour period, two hour of twilight, and 12 hours of night. The defined the day this way as they were nearer to the Equator. The Greeks redefined time to equal hours based on an imaginary line that is overhead at noon on the first day of autumn. At that time stars moved around the north pole every 24 hours, so they split the day into two 12 hour chunks.

Amerigo Vespuci
It was after Galileo’s time -- and the time of the great explorers -- when we accepted that the Earth was a globe, that time started to be standardized. First, we divided the globe into “Latitudes” and “Longitudes”. Latitudes were easy to mark as we knew where the equator was and we measured North and South from there. However, Navigators and Astronomers had a problem figuring longitudes. The problem was known to the Ancient Greeks, but the solution is credited to Amerigo Vespucci. who figured from his navigation to the Americas, that the Earth rotated at 15° in an hour (as I said, this was known from the ancient greeks but forgotten), and thus, in 24 hours, rotated 360 ° and that was a day.

Finally, where did they count from. Where was 0° - the imaginary line from the North to the South Pole? There were wars fought over this. At various times, people said that this meridian* was in London, Paris, Washington, Philadelphia, parts of Russia, Mecca, Jerusalem, and on. In 1851, the meridian was determined by the British (Empire) to run through Greenwich, London, England. By 1884, over two-thirds of all ships used it as the reference meridian on their maps. In October of that year, at the behest of US President Chester A. Arthur, 41 delegates from 25 nations met in Washington, D.C., for the International Meridian Conference. This conference selected the Greenwich Meridian as the official Prime Meridian due to its popularity. However, France abstained from the vote and French maps continued to use the Paris Meridian for several decades. They are still PO’ed.

Here’s a
map of the meridians as they stand today. Note that the zero longitude goes through London, and zero latitude is the Equator.

Flat Earth

*The term "meridian" comes from the Latin “meridies”, meaning "midday", when the sun crosses a given point midway between the times of sunrise and sunset. The same Latin stem gives rise to the terms A.M. (Ante Meridian) and P.M. (Post Meridian).

So, why did I tell you all that when we’re talking about computers?

Weell. All this is about the
calculation of time and space. This was a driving force behind devising machines that could make accurate calculations quickly and accurately. Naturally, human behavior also generated a necessity.

Read on.