Computing Profession

Heidelberg Laureate Forum: Who Invented the Computer?

The logo of the Heidelberg Laureate Forum.
The Heidelberg Laureate Forum allowed 200 researchers from all over the world to meet and interact with laureates of the most prestigious awards in computer science and mathematics.

I feel extremely lucky to be participating in the first Heidelberg Laureate Forum.  The Forum brings together 200 young researchers from 49 different countries to meet with Abel, Fields, and Turing Laureates. I recently completed my Ph.D. at Harvard University and started as a Lawrence Fellow at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.   As I take this next step in my career, I’m looking forward to hearing the advice the Laureates have for early researchers.

The lectures were kicked off with a fantastic retrospective by Prof. Raj Reddy, recipient of the 1994 Turing award for his work in artificial intelligence, on the development of the computer and who could be attributed with its invention.  You can see the talk in its entirety here.

He ended the presentation with the discussion of a metric to assess the claim of early pioneers from Pascal to Turing.  In a well thought through table he laid out the differences between the contributions of each player and their impact on society. Alongside the year of invention, the table in which each row represented a different researcher (only Turing being counted twice, once for proposing the stored program concept and once for the RISC architecture) and each column contained yes or no to the following categories: programmable, electronic, binary, floating point, stored program, prototype, CISC/RISC, impact wide use.  It was later suggested that Prof. Reddy add the date for the working prototype to the table.  I’m curious what other factors people think should be considered.  Should more special purpose machines be added?

Alan Turing’s 1945 contribution anticipating a RISC architecture for a programmable electronic computer was the only row to receive a ‘Y’ in all columns; however, the question of which columns are necessary to define who was first inventor can be answered in many ways.  Prof. Reddy concluded that they all, including Babbage, Atanasoff, Zuse, von Neumann, and Turing, deserved credit for inventing the computer.  He further emphasized how impressive it was that they each were primarily working in isolation with limited resources while making such significant contributions.

I particularly enjoyed the discussion that followed his presentation. Several Laureates chimed in with personal stories and viewpoints. Fred Brooks added details regarding the specifications of work by his dissertation advisor, Howard Aiken. Michael Rabin recounted what he had been told by Princeton colleagues who had worked with von Neumann about the strong influence Turing had on his work.  It was the perspective and conversation that you could only get in a meeting like this and set a great tone for the start of the week.  

Amanda Randles is a Lawrence Fellow at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Join the Discussion (0)

Become a Member or Sign In to Post a Comment

The Latest from CACM

Shape the Future of Computing

ACM encourages its members to take a direct hand in shaping the future of the association. There are more ways than ever to get involved.

Get Involved

Communications of the ACM (CACM) is now a fully Open Access publication.

By opening CACM to the world, we hope to increase engagement among the broader computer science community and encourage non-members to discover the rich resources ACM has to offer.

Learn More