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History of coding & computers

This is what many people think of, when they imagine a robot, or intelligent computer. We’ll learn the science behind the fiction.

T-800 robot

This is a more typical computer, the Commodore 64!

Before we get into computer programming (coding), it would be useful to learn the history of how computers – and any programmable algorithms – developed over time.

Commodore 64

2nd century BCE (200 BCE – 100 BCE)

200 BCE – The Antikythera mechanism – analogue computer and orrery used to predict astronomical positions and eclipses for calendrical and astrological purposes

1st century CE

Hero [or Heron] of Alexandria  (10 AD – 70 AD) was a Greek mathematician and engineer who was active in his native city of Alexandria, Roman Egypt. He is considered the greatest experimenter of antiquity and his work is representative of the Hellenistic scientific tradition. Hero published a well recognized description of a steam-powered device called an aeolipile (sometimes called a “Hero engine”).

Invented “Sequence Control” in which the operator of a machine set it running, which then follows a series of instructions. This was, essentially, the first program. He also made numerous innovations in the field of automata, which are important steps in the development of robotics.



Ancient Discoveries: Robotics: Series 3, episode 9, 2007. History Channel

In the dark recesses of an Egyptian temple, Heron of Alexandria worked on his awe-inspiring inventions. This film explores the miracle machines of the ancient world from the world’s first set of automatic doors and vending machine, to speaking statues that were the very first robot.

800 CE

Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (Persian: محمد بن موسی خوارزمی‎‎, Arabic: محمد بن موسى الخوارزمی‎‎; c. 780 – c. 850)

Known to Christian Europeans by his Latinized name, Algoritmi – sound familiar? That’s where we get the word “algorithm” from!

A Persian mathematician, astronomer, and geographer. In the 12th century, Latin translations of his work on the Indian numerals introduced the decimal positional number system to the Western world. His The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing presented the first systematic solution of linear and quadratic equations in Arabic. One of the fathers of algebra. The word “algebra” is derived from al-jabr, one of the two operations he used to solve quadratic equations.


850 CE

The Banū Mūsā brothers (“Sons of Moses”) were three 9th-century scholars who live in Baghdad. They are known for their Book of Ingenious Devices on automata (automatic machines). They wrote the Book on the Measurement of Plane and Spherical Figures, a foundational work on geometry. The Banu Musa worked in astronomical observatories established in Baghdad. They invented an automatic flute player which appears to have been the first programmable machine

1100’s CE

Ismail al-Jazari  (1136–1206, Arabic بديع الزمان أَبُو اَلْعِزِ بْنُ إسْماعِيلِ بْنُ الرِّزاز الجزري‎‎) was a Muslim polymath: a scholar, inventor, mechanical engineer, artisan, artist and mathematician. He is best known for writing The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices,  in 1206, where he described 100 mechanical devices. Al-Jazari built the first mechanical quasi-robots.

automated moving peacocks driven by hydropower
automatic gates, driven by hydropower
automatic doors as part of one of his elaborate water clocks
water wheels with cams on their axle used to operate automata.

1348 CE

An orrery is a mechanical model of the solar system that illustrates or predicts the relative positions and motions of the planets and moons, usually according to the heliocentric model.

1348, Giovanni Dondi (Italy) built the first known clock driven mechanism which displays the ecliptical position of Moon, Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

Leonardo da Vinci

1400’s Medieval Italy. He may have been influenced by the classic automata of al-Jazari.


Leonardo da Vinci produced drawings of a device consisting of interlocking cog wheels which can be interpreted as a mechanical calculator capable of addition and subtraction. A working model inspired by this plan was built in 1968 but it remains controversial whether Leonardo really had a calculator in mind. Da Vinci also made plans for a mechanical man: an early design for a robot.- Wikipedia


Mid 1800s

1820’s-1830’s Charles Babbage originated the concept of a programmable general-purpose computer. Designed the Analytical Engine and built a prototype for a less powerful mechanical calculator.

Ada Lovelace

Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace (née Byron; 1815 – 1852) English mathematician and writer, known for her work on Charles Babbage’s early mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. Her notes on the engine include first algorithm intended to be carried out by a machine. The first computer programmer

Two types of punched cards used to program the machine. Foreground: ‘operational cards’, for inputting instructions; background: ‘variable cards’, for inputting data


1946 ENIAC

Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer was amongst the earliest electronic general-purpose computers made. It was designed to calculate artillery firing tables for the United States Army’s Ballistic Research Laboratory, but could be reprogrammed for other purposes. It had a speed one thousand times faster than electro-mechanical machines. ENIAC calculated a trajectory that took a human 20 hours , in just 30 seconds (a 2400x increase in speed).


1940s-1970s The Curta is a small mechanical calculator developed by Curt Herzstark.




Watch an amazing mechanical computer from 1948


1953 Navy training film: Using a mechanical computer to calculate how to fire massive battleship guns


Hand cranked mechanical calculator



1989 Tim Berners-Lee invents the World Wide Web


1982 birth of the IBM-PC


1982 Commodore introduces the Commodore 64



Ada Lovelace: The Computer Scientist Without a computer

Ada Lovelace: Main page

Ada Lovelace: Magazine download, for homework assignment

Ada Lovelace: Magazine download (local copy)

1. The origin of Lady Ada, Ada Lovelace: Full name – Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace. How did she originally get involved with math and coding?
2. Based on context, what are “automata”? (p.3)
3. Charles Babbage originally envisioned his machine to do numerical calculations. Ada saw far beyond that – what other purposes did she soon realize programming might be useful for? (p.3)
4. Computer programmers don’t write code in English; they use a kind of “code”, a very simple set of step-by-step instructions. But the word ‘code’ has another meaning (as in “secret code”.) Sometimes the two different meanings of the word ‘code’ can be related. A programmer can use a “code” to store information, in a way that a computer understands. What kind of code appears in the work of Charles Dickens? (You’ll learn more about him in English/ELA) pages 4,5.
5. Why did the United States government regulate knitting during World War II? (p.4,5)
6. From Ada Lovelace’s own words, write two things you learned about how computers work. Page 6. (Her insights on coding are still applicable today.) page 6.
7. Binary is a code of 0s and 1s, used to represent numbers, and letters. It can be used to encode any kind of information. But what was the original use of a binary code? P.7
8. What is a user-interface? Why do programmers often insist that we use colors and other graphics on a screen (or on paper?) p.8
9. Based on what you read on page 10, and what you’ve heard elsewhere, what do you think “artificial intelligence” is?
10. Can you think of any examples of artificial intelligence in real life?

Why learn to program computers?

Article: In code we trust: The benefits of giving your children a head start in coding.
Many parents are trying to give their little ones a head-start in tech by sending them to coding classes, with waiting lists of hundreds in some parts of the country. But is it too much too young – and should the Government heed calls for it to be included in school curriculums? By Kim Bielenberg

In code we trust: The benefits of giving your children a head start in coding

Movies and TV shows

Pirates of Silicon Valley

1999, TNT, Directed by Martyn Burke. Based on Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine’s book Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer, it explores the impact of the rivalry between Jobs (Apple Computer) and Gates (Microsoft) on the development of the personal computer.

Learning Standards

2016 Massachusetts Science and Technology/Engineering Curriculum Framework

Understandings about the Nature of Science (Crosscutting Concepts):  Science knowledge has a history that includes the refinement of, and changes to, theories, ideas, and beliefs over time.

Science Is a Human Endeavor:  Scientific knowledge is a result of human endeavor, imagination, and creativity. Individuals and teams from many nations and cultures have contributed to science and to advances in engineering.

Appendix I Science and Engineering Practices Progression Matrix

Science and engineering practices include the skills necessary to engage in scientific inquiry and engineering design. It is necessary to teach these so students develop an understanding and facility with the practices in appropriate contexts. The Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC, 2012) identifies eight essential science and engineering practices:

1. Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering).
2. Developing and using models.
3. Planning and carrying out investigations.
4. Analyzing and interpreting data.
5. Using mathematics and computational thinking.
6. Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering).
7. Engaging in argument from evidence.
8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information.

“A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas”

This unit addresses critical thinking skills in the Next Generation Science Standards, which are based on “A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas”, by the National Research Council of the National Academies. In this document we read

“Through discussion and reflection, students can come to realize that scientific inquiry embodies a set of values. These values include respect for the importance of logical thinking, precision, open-mindedness, objectivity, skepticism, and a requirement for transparent research procedures and honest reporting of findings.”

Next Generation Science Standards: Science & Engineering Practices

● Ask questions that arise from careful observation of phenomena, or unexpected results, to clarify and/or seek additional information.
● Ask questions that arise from examining models or a theory, to clarify and/or seek additional information and relationships.
● Ask questions to determine relationships, including quantitative relationships, between independent and dependent variables.
● Ask questions to clarify and refine a model, an explanation, or an engineering problem.
● Evaluate a question to determine if it is testable and relevant.
● Ask questions that can be investigated within the scope of the school laboratory, research facilities, or field (e.g., outdoor environment) with available resources and, when appropriate, frame a hypothesis based on a model or theory.
● Ask and/or evaluate questions that challenge the premise(s) of an argument, the interpretation of a data set, or the suitability of the design

Science and engineering practices: NSTA National Science Teacher Association

Next Gen Science Standards Appendix F: Science and engineering practices

Appendix F, Science and Engineering Practices in the NGSS

Modeling can begin in the earliest grades, with students’ models progressing from
concrete “pictures” and/or physical scale models (e.g., a toy car) to more abstract
representations of relevant relationships in later grades, such as a diagram representing
forces on a particular object in a system. (NRC Framework, 2012, p. 58)

Models include diagrams, physical replicas, mathematical representations, analogies, and computer simulations.

Although models do not correspond exactly to the real world, they bring certain features into focus while obscuring others.

All models contain approximations and assumptions that limit the range of validity and predictive power, so it is important for students to recognize their limitations.

In science, models are used to represent a system (or parts of a system) under study, to aid in the development of questions and explanations, to generate data that can be used to make predictions, and to communicate ideas to others. Students can be expected to evaluate and refine models through an iterative cycle of comparing their predictions with the real world and then adjusting them to gain insights into the phenomenon being modeled. As such, models are based upon evidence. When new evidence is uncovered
that the models can’t explain, models are modified.

In engineering, models may be used to analyze a system to see where or under what conditions flaws might develop, or to test possible solutions to a problem. Models can also be used to visualize and refine a design, to communicate a design’s features to others, and as prototypes for testing design performance.

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