Philosophy of Computer Science

What Is a Computer?

Last Update: 5 November 2013

Note: NEW or UPDATED material is highlighted

    What is a computer?—History

    1. What kind of computer did people want in 1892? Read this ad from The New York Times

    2. ENIAC

    3. A Very Brief History of Computers UPDATED

    4. IBM Archives: Antique Attic

      • A terrific 3-"volume" collection of photos of old calculating machines, including replicas of Pascal's and Leibniz's calculators.

    5. Generations of Computers

      • Contains some good images of early calculating machines, including Pascal's and Leibniz's, not to mention Buffalonian Herman Hollerith's census tabulator.

    6. Smith, Adam (1776), passage on the division of labor, from The Wealth of Nations.

    7. O'Connor, J.J., & Robertson, E.F. (1997), "Gaspard Clair François Marie Riche de Prony"

    8. Charles Babbage websites:

    9. Joyce, David E. (1997), "The Mathematical Problems of David Hilbert"

    10. Simon, Herbert A., & Newell, Allen (1958), "Heuristic Problem Solving: The Next Advance in Operations Research", Operations Research 6(1) (January-February): 1-10.

      • Includes a brief history of Babbage's work (pp. 1-3).

      • This is the paper in which Simon and Newell predicted that (among other things)
        a computer would "be the world's chess champion" (p.7) within 10 years, i.e., by 1968.
        I once asked Simon about this; our email conversation can be found here.

    11. Goldstine, Herman H. (1972), The Computer from Pascal to von Neumann (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).

    12. Chase, George C. (1980), "History of Mechanical Computing Machinery", Annals of the History of Computing 2(3) (July): 198-226.
      • Article-length, illustrated history

    13. Davis, Martin (1987), "Mathematical Logic and the Origin of Modern Computers" [PDF], Studies in the History of Mathematics

        Reprinted in:
        Rolf Herken (ed.), Universal Turing Machine: A Half-Century Survey; Second Edition (Vienna: Springer-Verlag, 1995): 135-158.

      • Article-length version of Davis 2000

    14. Aspray, William (ed.) (1990), Computing before Computers (Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press).

    15. Robinson, J. Alan (1994), "Logic, Computers, Turing, and von Neumann" [PDF], in K. Furukawa; D. Michie; & Muggleton, S. (eds.), Machine Intelligence 13: Machine Intelligence and Inductive Learning (Oxford: Clarendon Press): 1-35.

      • Interesting historical comments by the developer of the resolution method of automated theorem proving on the development of computers and the related history of logic.

    16. Hoyle, Michelle A. (1994-2003), "The History of Computing Science"

    17. Lee, J.A.N. (1995-2002), "The History of Computing"

    18. Maxfield & Montrose Interactive, Inc. (1997-1998), A History of Computers

    19. Davis, Martin (2000), Engines of Logic: Mathematicians and the Origin of the Computer (originally titled The Universal Computer: The Road from Leibniz to Turing) (New York: W.W. Norton).

    20. Computer History Museum (2008)

    21. Copeland, B. Jack (2004), "Computation", in Luciano Floridi (ed.), The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Computing and Information (Malden, MA: Blackwell).

    22. (2004), History of Computers

    23. Ensmenger, Nathan (2004), "Bits of History: Review of A.R. Burks's Who Invented the Computer? The Legal Battle that Changed Computing History", in American Scientist 91 (September-October): 467-468.

    24. O'Connor, J.J., & Robertson, E.F. (2004), "The MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive"

    25. Wells, Benjamin (2003), "The Architecture of Colossus, the First PC", Stanford University Computer Systems Laboratory Colloquium.

    26. Stoll, Cliff (UB alumnus!!) (2006), "When Slide Rules Ruled", Scientific American 294(5) (May): 80-87.

      • "Before electronic calculators, the mechanical slide rule dominated scientific and engineering computation"
      • Note: The slide rule is an analog calculator!

    27. On the Antikythera Mechanism (world's oldest computer?):

      1. Wilford, John Noble (2006), "Early Astronomical 'Computer' Found to Be Technically Complex", New York Times (30 November).
      2. Freeth, T., et al. (2006), "Decoding the ancient Greek astronomical calculator known as the Antikythera Mechanism", Nature 444 (30 November): 587-591.
      3. Seabrook, John (2007), "Fragmentary Knowledge", The New Yorker (14 May): 94-102.

      4. Wilford, John Noble (2008), "A Device that Was High-Tech in 100 B.C. (Discovering How Greeks Computed in 100 B.C.)", New York Times (31 July): A12.

      5. Freeth, Tony (2009), "Decoding an Ancient Computer", Scientific American 301(6) (December): 76–83.

    28. Vintage Calculators Web Museum

    29. Care, Charles (2007), "Not Only Digital: A Review of ACM's Early Involvement with Analog Computing Technology", Communications of the ACM 50(5) (May): 42-45.

    30. Martin, Douglas (2008), "David Caminer, 92, Dies; A Pioneer in Computers", New York Times (29 June):28.

      • Caminer worked for the first company to computerize its operations—the Lyons tea company—in 1951(!)

    31. Wright, Alex (2008), "The Web Time Forgot", New York Times (17 June):F1,F4.

      • See also:
        Forster, E.M. (1909), "The Machine Stops"

        • "Anybody who uses the Internet should read E.M. Forster's The Machine Stops. It is a chilling, short story masterpiece about the role of technology in our lives. Written in 1909, it's as relevant today as the day it was published. Forster has several prescient notions including instant messages (email!) and cinematophoes (machines that project visual images). —Paul Rajlich"

    32. O'Regan, Gerard (2008), A Brief History of Computing (Springer).

    33. Lohr, Steve (2010), "Inventor Whose Pioneer PC Helped Inspire Microsoft Dies", New York Times (3 April): A1–A3.

      • Obituary of the inventor of the Altair, the first personal computer.

    What is a computer?—Philosophy

    1. Samuel, Arthur L. (1953), "Computing Bit by Bit, or Digital Computers Made Easy", Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers 41(10) (October): 1223-1230.

      • A description of how computers work, written, for radio engineers who may never have seen one(!), by the creator of one of the earliest, if not the first, AI programs: Samuel's checkers player.
      • Comes close to defining a computer "as an information or data processing device which accepts data in one form and delivers it in an altered form" (p.1223).

    2. Shannon, Claude E. (1953), "Computers and Automata", Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers 41(10) (October): 1234-1241.

      • Discusses the use of computers for non-numerical computing.

    3. Lewis, W.D. (1953), "Electronic Computers and Telephone Switching", Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers 41(10) (October): 1242-1244.

      • How is a computer like a telephone network?

    4. Brunjes, Shannon (1977), "What Is a Computer?", Journal of Medical Systems 1(1): 79–85. [PDF]

      • A computer is "an information-processing machine, varying in size from the very large system to the very small microprocessor, operating by means of stored programs which can be modified, and using various auxiliary devices to communicate with the user." (p.85)

    5. Searle, John R. (1990), "Is the Brain a Digital Computer?", Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 64(3) (November): 21-37.

      • html version (without the footnotes)
      • original version (PDF from; requires connection)
      • This was slightly revised as Ch.9 of:
          Searle, John (1992), The Rediscovery of the Mind (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press)
        and that chapter is often cited instead of the 1990 article.

        Some reactions:

      1. Piccinini, Gualtiero (2003), "The Mind as Neural Software: Functionalism, Computationalism, and Computational Functionalism", paper read at the APA Pacific Division (March 2004).

      2. Piccinini, Gualtiero (2006), "Computational Explanation in Neuroscience", Synthese 153(3) (December): 343-353.

        • §§1-4 are a good summary of issues related to the nature of computationalism, observer-dependence (as opposed to what Searle calls "intrinsic" computationalism), and universal realizability (or "pancomputationalism").

      3. Piccinini, Gualtiero (2007), "Computational Modelling vs. Computational Explanation: Is Everything a Turing Machine, and Does It Matter to the Philosophy of Mind?", Australasian Journal of Philosophy 85(1): 93–115.

      4. Rapaport, William J. (2007), "Searle on Brains as Computers", American Philosophical Association Newsletter on Philosophy and Computers 6(2) (Spring): 4-9.

      5. On the nature of "intrinsic properties", see:
        Skow, Bradford (2007), "Are Shapes Intrinsic?", Philosophical Studies 133: 111-130.

      6. On a related question: If the brain is a computer, is it a Turing machine?

        • Sackur, Jérôme; & Dehaene, Stanislas (2009), "The Cognitive Architecture for Chaining of Two Mental Operations", Cognition 111: 187–211.

        • Zylberberg, Ariel; Dehaene, Stanislas; Roelfsema, Pieter R.; & Sigman, Mariano (2011), "The Human Turing Machine: A Neural Framework for Mental Programs", Trends in Cognitive Sciences 15(7) (July): 293–300.

    6. Chalmers, David (1993), "A Computational Foundation for the Study of Cognition".

      • See esp. the section "What about computers?"

    7. Hayes, Patrick J. (1997), "What Is a Computer? An Electronic Discussion", Monist 80(3).

    8. Floridi, Luciano (1999), Philosophy and Computing: An Introduction (London: Routledge), Ch. 2: "The Digital Workshop".

    9. Shagrir, Oron (1999), "What Is Computer Science About?" [PDF], The Monist 82(1): 131-149.

    10. Harnish, Robert M. (2002), "Coda: Computation for Cognitive Science, or What IS a Computer, Anyway?", Minds, Brains, Computers: An Historical Introduction to the Foundations of Cognitive Science (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers): 394-412.

    11. Shagrir, Oron (2006), "Why We View the Brain as a Computer", Synthese 153(3) (December): 393-416.

      • §1, "The Problem of Physical Computation: What Does Distinguish Computers from Other Physical Systems?", contains a good survey of various theories of what a computer is.

    12. Is the universe a computer?

      1. Wolfram, Stephen (2002), A New Kind of Science (Wolfram Media).

      2. Lloyd, Seth; & Ng, Y. Jack (2004), "Black Hole Computers", Scientific American 291(5) (November): 52-61.

      3. "Indeed, computational algorithms are so powerful that they can simulate virtually any phenomena, without proving anything about the computational nature of the actual mechanisms underlying these phenomena. Computational algorithms generate a perfect description of the rotation of the planets around the sun, although the solar system does not compute in any way. In order to be considered as providing a model of the mechanisms actually involved, and not only a simulation of the end-product of mechanisms acting at a different level, computational models have to perform better than alternative, non computational explanations."

    13. Anderson, David L. (2006), "The Nature of Computers", The Mind Project.

      • Should be read online, to take advantage of Flash animations.

    14. Is a railroad layout a computer?

    15. Can DNA be a computer?

      • Shapiro, Ehud; & Benenson, Yaakov (2006), "Bringing DNA Computers to Life", Scientific American 294(5) (May): 44-51.

    16. How about TVs and phones?

    17. Kanat-Alexander, Max (2008), "What Is a Computer?", Code Simplicity (10 October).

      • "Any piece of matter which can carry out symbolic instructions and compare data in assistance of a human goal."

    18. Schulman, Ari N. (2009), "Why Minds Are Not Like Computers", The New Atlantis (Winter): 46-68.

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