Most of us have a rough
idea that computers are
made up of complicated hardware and software. But perhaps few of us
know that the concept of a computer was envisioned long before these
machines became ubiquitous items in our homes, offices and even
Yesterday's refusal by the UK government to posthumously pardon Alan Turing makes sad news for maths, computer science and the fight against discrimination. But even if symbolic gestures are, symbolically, being rebuffed, at least Turing's most important legacy — the scientific one — is going stronger than ever. An example is this week's announcement that scientists have devised a biological computer, based on an idea first described by Turing in the 1930s.
Clearly the modern electronic computer couldn't have been built before electronics existed, but it's not clear why computers powered by steam or clockwork weren't invented earlier. Tom Körner speculates on the historical reasons why computers were invented when they were.