Who invented the computer? We celebrate the key players

You may be familiar with Alan Turing and Ada Lovelace, but have you also heard of Konrad Zuse? We honour the computing pioneers.

Computers are ubiquitous in workplaces and homes across the country, whether in the form of a desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone.

However, who invented this machine that has enriched our lives? In different countries around the world there were contributors who developed the computer, ranging from Lord Byron’s daughter to a Second World War German inventor.

[Quiz: Can you guess who invented these groundbreaking gadgets?]

A computer used to be a person

The word 'computer' goes all the way back to the 1640s when it referred to a person who made mathematical calculations. These people would sit and work out problems to be published in huge books of tables which others could then refer to.

As you can imagine, there were mistakes and it took a huge amount of work.

Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace


(Babbage and Lovelace on new passport pages unveiled in 2015)

Charles Babbage designed the first programmable general-purpose computer, named the Difference Engine, in 1819. The Difference Engine had the ability to compute answers to mathematical problems.

He did this work with Ada Lovelace, considered to be the world’s first computer programmer, but the machine was not realised in their lifetime.

It took until 1991 for the Science Museum to create Babbage’s Difference Engine No.2, which stands at 2.1 metres high and 3.4 metres long.

difference machine

(Babbage's Difference Engine No 2, 2000.. 1992-556. Science Museum Group Collection Online)

[Read more: Who is Ada Lovelace?]

Alan Turing and Bletchley Park

In 1936, Alan Turing came up with a design for how modern computers would work, and his work laid the foundation for the codebreaking that occurred at Bletchley Park during the Second World War.

The paper which laid the foundation for modern computer science, published in May 1936, can be read in full here.

engima(Turing's notebook which sold for £1 million at auction)

Tommy Flowers and BT 

Tommy Flowers, an English engineer, and his team developed the first electronic digital programmable computer. He built and designed Colossus, a machine at Bletchley Park, which used electronic valves. 

This was a breakthrough and linked to BT because Flowers had been working with electronic valves at the Post Office Research Station in Dollis Hill as a telecommunications research engineer before the war, focusing on experimental electronic telephone exchange switching.


(The output writer of the Colossus machine)

[Read more: AI cracks 'unbreakable' Enigma code in just 13 minutes]

Konrad Zuse – a German inventor

Zuse was the first person to actually build a working, programmable electromechanical digital computer when he built the Z3 in 1941.

Computers today

From these original and brilliant mathematicians came the computers that exist today, from IBM’s the International Business Machine to Steve Jobs and the first Macintosh, to today’s smartphones.

[Read more: Woman throws away computer worth £130,000]