I was going through the documentation of the manual page in the Linux Operating System, when, I encountered the term "typesetting".

I surfed the web for answers and found it in Wikipedia.

But I am actually confused over how the computer came into existence. Is it through the invention of the linotype printing machine (The first keyboard that came into exsistence. Please correct me if I am wrong.) and the invention of typewriter, or through the idea of inventing a calculating machine.I like to know the history and origin of how modern computer as we know today came into exsistence (with the keyboard, mouse and CPU). Actually, how did the computer come into its true form?

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    $\begingroup$ You mean like the Jacquard loom? (controlled by punched cards ... 1801.) I think you need to define "computer" in order for any answers to make sense. For "true form" do you say computers before the mouse were "false"? $\endgroup$ Jun 16, 2015 at 1:02
  • $\begingroup$ Both calculators and typewriters played a role, they were combined already back in 1940. This page gives a year by year timeline starting in 1940, with photos. computerhistory.org/timeline/?category=cmptr See also hsm.stackexchange.com/questions/2339/… about teletype keyboards and paper before monitors. Wikipedia has a history article that starts with abacus and goes through all intermediate stages en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computer#History $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Jun 16, 2015 at 1:55

2 Answers 2


I am immediately reminded of a great 2010 documentary called Top Secret Rosies: The Female 'Computers' of WWII.

The word "computer" has had a definition since at least the 17th century. In the traditional sense, this from the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (1992), "compute" came from French, meaning "determine by mathematical reckoning." The word computer would refer to a profession wherein one makes their living doing mathematical and arithmetic calculations. The Wiki on human computer should give you loads of insight into this old profession. An nice additional piece of historical perspective is encapsulated in the late 19th century job advertisement, A Computer Wanted.

Historically, when some large computations for some large complicated process needed to be done, and the person wanting them done had the cash to hire the people, human computers would be hired, organized and instructed to take on various parts of long computations in an organized assembly line style. Computer was still a human profession right in to world war II, and the first electronic computers like ENIAC were actually programmed by these human computers. The people who were in this profession typically had math degrees.

ENIAC was not the only electronic computer of the 1940s. An earlier computer, Colossus, was used by British cryptologists during the war, and the Bombe computer was used to help decipher the German Enigma machine.

I also recall Richard Feynman telling stories about his days working on the Manhattan Project. In Feynman - Manhattan Project the author states, "The greater part of his work was administering the computation group of human computers in the theoretical division." Much more first person anecdotal stories of his time here working with his human computers, as I recall, can be found in his book Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! That is a much recommended read, I do not possess a copy; I read it in a library. I vaguely recall him describing his process as one where these students in an orderly fashion, an adder, a multiplier, a divider, and so forth, would, with the use of a punch card system, build up big computations over many hours and days, maybe even weeks. One human misstep would obviously have disastrous results. So I guess he was sort of using a combination of human computers, and machine style punchcard devices.

Essentially, the answer to your question is (mostly I think) the latter; electronic computers arose straight from a desperate demand for more computational power. Being able to automate a huge algorithm formerly done by a team of directed humans in less time with less error became possible, and it was important at the time. They were really pushed along out of necessity in a big way by the demands of the second world war, and the cold war funding immediately thereafter kept this advancement moving forward. I am not saying that WWII gave us the very first examples of computers, but this would be the age when they were dramatically ushered in, and the word computer really began to transfer its meaning from "one (a person) who computes," to these machines that, in a decade, made the job of human computer obsolete, and eventually turned into that thing currently sitting on your desktop.

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    $\begingroup$ These days they are even calling the Antikythera mechanism a computer en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antikythera_mechanism, but clearly that wasn't "true form" :-) $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Jun 16, 2015 at 2:09
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    $\begingroup$ Concerning your description of human computers, a New York Times ad for one is at query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/…. $\endgroup$
    – KCd
    Jun 16, 2015 at 4:03
  • $\begingroup$ @KCd Could not help but add that to the post. Very nice! $\endgroup$ Jun 16, 2015 at 6:07
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    $\begingroup$ Colossus was not used for Enigma - they used the bombes for that. $\endgroup$ Jun 16, 2015 at 13:15
  • $\begingroup$ @MartinSchröder This fact has been absorbed into the post, and right you are. Nice catch! $\endgroup$ Jun 17, 2015 at 2:02

Was the computer invented through the influence of the printing press or through the influence of the calculator?


Electronic typesetting began in the mid 1960s with TYPSET and RUNOFF, which was a couple of decades after the invention of digital electronic computers. Desktop publishing followed a couple of decades later. Until the late 1960s, all that calculators could do was add, subtract, multiply, and divide. By the late 1960s, some calculators had a "memory", but that memory was limited to a single number.

Up until the 1940s, computers were people. While those human computers did use mechanical calculators to aid in the computations (the electronic calculator was yet to be invented), they did something that mere calculators cannot do. Those human computers could follow a complicated algorithm that involve decision-making. Calculators that can only add, subtract, multiple, and divide can't do that.

It was automating those decision processes that enabled the transition from human computers to electronic computers in the 1940s and beyond.


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