Great Innovations in Computing

Posted in Software Development by Dan on June 8th, 2008

Jeff Atwood poses the question “What do you think the single greatest invention in computer science is [other than the computer itself]?”

Of course, all of this depends on how strictly you define Computer Science and whether or not you include innovations that could more accurately be classified as Software Engineering or Electronic Engineering achievements.

“Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.” – Edsger Dijkstra

Jeff himself, quoting Steve McConnell, opts for the “routine” (as in procedure/method/function) as the greatest invention. The comments on Coding Horror suggest alternatives, with the compiler being perhaps the most compelling contender.

My vote goes elsewhere. A strong case could be made for the Internet (in general, or the World Wide Web specifically) as the greatest invention. But, like Jeff, I’m going for something much more fundamental. The question is framed to exclude the computer itself, but I would identify one particular refinement to the design of the modern computer as being arguably the most significant milestone in Computer Science. Or perhaps more accurately, it is an advance in the design of the machines that allow practical application of a science that Dijkstra suggested did not really need machines at all.

Prisoner's Dilemma: John Von Neumann, Game Theory and the Puzzle of the Bomb

In February 1946, The University of Pennsylvania unveiled the ENIAC, the first general-purpose, Turing-complete electronic computer. It was programmed by manipulating switches and cables. By hand. The ENIAC project had been in progress since 1943 and, by the time of its unveiling, work was already underway on its successor, the EDVAC. In June 1945, John von Neumann distributed a document entitled First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC. This 10-page document, written before the end of the Second World War, contained the outline of pretty much every general-purpose computer built since. The design of the EDVAC differed from the ENIAC in two fundamental ways. Firstly, it used binary numbers rather than decimal. Perhaps even more significantly, it was to be a stored-program computer.

By defining an instruction set and treating computations as sequences of these instructions, stored in the machine’s memory just like data, a stored-program computer is considerably more flexible than previous hard-wired machines.

Like all the best ideas it seems fairly obvious in hindsight, but the implications of this innovation are difficult to overstate. As well as the powerful flexibility it offered, the advent of the stored-program computer meant that it was now possible to write programs that wrote programs. This was an advance that would eventually lead to that other great computing invention: the compiler. Code was data.

The stored-program approach came to be known as the von Neumann architecture, though this ignores the contributions of von Neumann’s collaborators and contemporaries. Many of the ideas were reportedly established before von Neumann became involved in the project. Nor was the EDVAC the first working stored-program computer. That honour goes to the University of Manchester’s Small-Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM or “Baby”), which became operational in June 1948.