It's easy to imagine that the computer is a recent invention. A search of the web reveals a host of machines claiming to be the first electronic computer, and all are mid-20th century. However, what's harder to determine is the first appearance of a truly programmable computer. After watching a fascinating TV documentary this week, it seems that amongst the first was a model of a small boy writing on paper with a quill pen. And it was built more than two hundred years ago.
The automaton named The Writer was built by a family watchmaker business in France in 1774, and is just one of a series of clockwork-powered machines created around the world during that period. The Writer sits at a desk, dips a quill pen into a dish of ink, and then slowly and delicately writes beautiful cursive text onto a pad of paper on the desk. You can see a full description and pictures on the IW Magazine website.
OK, so clockwork automatons and toys had already been around for ages at that time. What struck me about The Writer is that the mechanism uses a large wheel containing details of the letters that will be written. But the segments of the wheel are removable and replaceable, so they can be changed at any time to write completely different text. It's effectively a stored program computer that converts a set of instructions into some recognizable output.
Yes, you can argue that it's a fairly simple transformation from program to output; there is no intermediate processing as such. Each interchangeable segment of the control wheel simply defines the set of movements of the automaton's hand. It's not a general purpose computer either - you can't tell it to play chess, or calculate the trajectory of a cannonball. But it's a fascinating stage in the development of adaptable stored program machines.
Mind you, the documentary also showed an automaton called The Turk, built in 1770, that supposedly could play chess - and could even beat the most skillful players of the time. This completely astounded those who saw it in action, and certainly would have been an incredible achievement if it hadn't turned out to be powered by a real human chess player hidden inside.
The documentary was produced by the BBC here in the UK, written and presented by the enigmatic Simon Schaffer, and you can even see a clip of The Writer on the program's website page. Yet, in a remarkable contrast to the capabilities of our ancestors, news this week revealed that the BBC has removed the clock showing the current time from all of its website pages.
Why? Because somebody complained that all it did was show the time on the origin server that generated the page, which might not be accurate for the location of the viewer (and presumably, if they left the page open for a few minutes, would be the wrong time anyway). The comment from the official BBC spokesperson was that it would take 100 developer days to change it so that the clock showed the correct time, and this could not be justified.