An encounter with Russell Kirsch, inventor of the world's first internally programmable computer

Joel Runyon:

"That’s the problem with a lot of people”, he continued, “they don’t try to do stuff that’s never been done before, so they never do anything, but if they try to do it, they find out there’s lots of things they can do that have never been done before."

I nodded my head in agreement and laughed to myself – thinking that would be something that I would say and the coincidence that out of all the people in the coffee shop I ended up talking to, it was this guy. What a way to open a conversation.The old man turned back at his coffee, took a sip, and then looked back at me.

“In fact, I’ve done lots of things that haven’t been done before”, he said half-smiling.

Not sure if he was simply toying with me or not, my curiousity got the better of me.

"Oh really? Like what types of things?, All the while, half-thinking he was going to make up something fairly non-impressive."

"I invented the first computer."


    1. What he should really apologize for is making the first digital image a picture of his baby.

    2. But most images don’t use the pixel basis at all, and even if they did, pixels are not intrinsically square; they’re generally considered to be deltas, which makes perfect sense as a rectangular grid of deltas is useful from an information processing perspective.

    3. Did you know that the first image taken was of his child, the one that now works at Intel and was possible the photo of the decade in the 1950s as noted in Life Magazine?

  1. Kirsch’s quote is from the story of the Tower of Babel. Yahweh confounds the language of the people not because of their pride, or because building a big tower is somehow evil, but because, as He says, He fears human achievement:

    “And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.” [Genesis 11:6]

    Kirsch is taking an anti-Yahweh position, one Nietzsche might appreciate. I certainly do.

    1. I realise this is off subject, hope you will forgive me bloggers! Having studied the scriptures extensively over many years I felt I needed to reply to this particular point. When reading the context that the above mentioned verse is within, the reason that Yahweh confuses the languages is so the original command given to mankind can be fulfilled. That is to ‘be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it,’ Gen 1:28 re-iterrated gain to Noah after the flood Gen 8:17 , 9:1 , 9:7. So by staying and gathering in one place as well as building a tower to ‘make a name for themselves’ instead directing the praise and glory to Yahweh they were going against that command.
      The other thing to note about the wording ‘they imagined to do’ is that earlier Yahweh had noted that man only imagines ´evil continually´Gen 6:5 which he wished to prevent.

      1. “instead directing the praise and glory to Yahweh”

        Once again God a “superior being” shows the insecurity of an iron age ruler.

        1.  Then again, if God is a “superior being”, you couldn’t possibly be expected to understand all of His ways.

      2. But that’s not the reason Yahweh gives. He doesn’t mention disobeying His command, he doesn’t mention their staying in one place, or their pride, or their desire to make a name for themselves. The reason He gives is that the people will be able to do whatever they imagine.

        And the builders of the tower are all descendents of the just and perfect Noah, are they not? This is in contrast to those of Gen 6:5 with the evil imaginings, descendants of sons of God and possibly giants: they were all destroyed. [Gen 7:23]

  2. Nowhere I can find explains the term “internally programmable”.   Are we just talking about memory in the computer?  In which case 1) that’s a lousy way to describe it and 2) That’s not really inventing the computer is it?

    Make no mistake, Kirsch is a god of computing.  Just, not that one.

    1. I think it may be a joke — note the end of the quote: “my wife and I used to walk into it to program it.”
      Or he might be intending that it was a “stored program” computer.

    2. I was wondering that myself, then imagined a computer capable of being hacked by its inhabitants, say Tali from the Mass Effect series, or a particularly clever Sim. 

  3. That blog repeatedly claims “inventor of the computer”. Wikipedia says “created America’s first internally programmable computer”.

    Though I’m sure I’m splitting hairs because America is the entire world.

    Wikipedia’s page about the history of the fax machine is also required reading if you want to gauge how likely it is that one guy is solely responsible for our ability to transmit pictures.

    But what do I know? I only invented the sandwich.

      1. That’s if we don’t count the relatively unknown Atanasoff “ABC” computer of 1937-42, the first high speed electronic (vacuum-tube) binary computer. Even had DRAM. But no stored-program.

        The ABC prevailed in a patent battle against ENIAC: the ABC inventor unwisely let Mauchly (Rand eniac guy) go over the ABC in great detail over weeks, then during WWII they’d gone to the military to fund their own project.  The ABC vanished from history (scrapped for recycling.)  During ENIAC patent battle the ABC was rediscovered.  Eckert/Mauchly had concealed its existence, then pretended that they hadn’t even seen inside it, then pretended that they hadn’t used any of Atanasoff’s ideas and breakthroughs.  The courts struck down ENIAC patents as being derivative of Atanasoff.

        Atanasoff appears to be THE ‘TESLA’ OF ELECTRONIC COMPUTING.  Not only did he build the first one, then never made a penny off it, then had his prototypes hauled off as scrap, and his ideas lifted by opponents and made millions for others, AND many decades later (1973) had the courts reveal famous historical figures to be idea-theives…  but also Atanasoff was an actual visionary who “saw” the complete system while mildly intoxicated and driving randomly at night through eastern MA at extremely unwise speeds.  He had to pull over to a late night tavern for a supply of napkins, to scribble out the whole thing before it was lost.

  4. Nit picking time: The Wikipedia page linked to by the article says “America’s first programmable computer”, not the world’s first, since the Manchester Baby, built by Turing’s team, was built in 1948, which was way before SEAC became operational in 1950. There’s a functional replica of Baby.

    But you knew that already.

    If you want a good time learning about old computers, look up the October 1952 IRE Proceedings, which is the computer issue. It describes about half of the computers in existence at the time of its publication.

    But what do I know? I didn’t invent the Nixie tube wristwatch.

      1. At least 1646, as long as you’re referring to people who do mathematical calculations.

  5. ” All the while, half-thinking he was going to make up something fairly non-impressive”

    Instead he made up something impressive!

    ‘creator of Americas first programmable computer’ is a long stretch from ‘inventor of the computer’.

    1. The scope of what Tommy Flowers (and his team!) invented or pioneered is staggering. Several lifetime achievements in one lifetime. The very definition of an unsung hero.

  6. Um… I think he was trying to hit on him. The set up (“Do you like Apple?”) followed by an old cliché (people are just so dumb) just to be able to have an excuse to reveal who he is. Yep, he was so trying to hit on him!

  7. It’s also believed that Britain probably had code-breaking machines that would have qualified as ‘computers’ during WWII, but their existence was classified. 

    Anyway, no one person ‘invented’ the computer. Computers were made possible by various mathematical and engineering breakthroughs and their physical execution was invariably the product of large teams of talented people.

    But what do I know? I invented the piano key necktie.

  8. This wonderful man called me on the phone one time.  I had misspelled his name in a blog post.  It is one of my favorite memories.  He talked about us meeting at the art museum down town…his wife was a docent at the time.  I could never get it to work out but I have never forgotten what joy that call was.  He is interesting and down to earth.  I like that.

    Barbara Torris

  9. That’s a great article although Kirsch does step into the misconception that tablets are solely for consumption. Ironically that misconception seems to arise out of people who aren’t thinking in terms of “Do things that have never been done before”.

    The potential of computers and microprocessors is more than just coding and writing. People are using phones and tablets to move out of the computer+keyboard box and create new things. I also think that tablets and smart phones are not replacing desktops as much they are extending them.

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