Computer/Talk

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Is my thermostat a computer?  :-)

No it is simple feedback device unless it is programable thermostat.

Suppose it's programmable.

Then yes, it is a computer. I think a more natural way of speaking would be to say that it has a computer in it.

Well, no; it has an embedded chip...that doesn't make it a computer, does it?

We have to start with definition. To most people 'computer' means personal computer and even if thet think about supercomputer they see more powerful pc. If we however stick to the definition 'device that process data' than computer will have much broader meaning. ENIAC was a computer but it did not resemble present computers. Computer computes data therefore any device that does it can be called computer. Programable thermostat has small computer inside and one of the more sophisticated might be more powerful than ENIAC.


I think a strong connotation of computer nowadays is that it is universal, ie can perform any computational task. A thermostat can be incredibly sophisticated but it will still only tell you when to turn on the heater. A pac-man machine will only play pac-man. But a computer can do either of those things, or much more, so long as you give it instructions on how to do so.


A computer used to mean a person that computed, eventually a person that computed using an adding machine. Many of these computers were women. The computations were often systems of differential equations (or other linear systems), for example, solving problems in ballistics.



I intend to give this page a serious working over as the result of some interesting discussions on Konrad Zuse/Talk and on the other "history of computing" related pages. Robert Merkel


As the author of the page (though it has been improved somewhat since) i think a complete rewrite would be nice. I wrote it mostly in desperation that so important a topic had only a one like entry. The current page is better than that but not particularly good.

However, i suggest not deleting anything from the page until you have a complete article that covers all the important stuff already there (and hopefully more!). One way might be to rule a line at the top (or bottom) and start your rewrite in a seperate section. When you have enough there the old version could be removed.

I have seen a few other pages where mediocre articles were deleted by someone who then ran out of steam before completing their rewrite, leaving something worse than the original. Leaving both versions available during the transition protects somewhat against this disaster. Best of luck here!


I didn't see the above comment until I had committed my rewrite (it was actually a good idea you had, if somebody can restore the old article and hang it somewhere that'd be good).

(Done. It's at the end of the new one. New one is looking good!)

It is approximately half "feature-complete" at this point. Seeing we already have a great deal of other material on computing topics, I intend to concentrate merely on the "what is a computer" question, with very brief overviews of the other two subheadings.


Any suggestions (or just plain edits) on how to improve my explanation of why Turing-completeness is important would be appreciated. Robert Merkel


On the commercial computing side, data processing machines began to enter serious use circa 1895 in the USA and during the early 20th century many other places. These machines usually were based on punched cards and could do operations such as sorting, tabulating, counting, and in some cases calculating a total, but were probably not general enough to be considered computers. When computers became cheap enough to be competitive, computers took over because they can do all this, and have much more flexibility. Many of the technologies used in computers 1945-1970 were originally developed for earlier data processing machines and some of the same companies were involved (IBM and Burroughs, maybe Sperry, probably others in other countries). In the history section this seems somehow relevant, but you write so much better than me i leave it to you to decide if, or how, to add it.


Yes, the new one is really looking good! --LMS