Ask any computer science graduate about the first programmable computer and the answer you’ll likely receive would be the Difference Engine, a conceptual design by Charles Babbage. Whilst the design wasn’t entirely new (that honour goes to J. H. Müller who wrote about the idea some 36 earlier) he was the first to obtain funding to create such a device although he never managed to get it to work, despite blowing the equivalent of $350,000 in government money on trying to build it. Still modern day attempts at creating the engine with the tolerances of the time period have shown that such a device would have worked should have he created it.
But Babbage’s device wasn’t created in a vacuum, it built on the wealth of mechanical engineering knowledge from the decades that proceeded him. Whilst there was nothing quiet as elaborate as his Analytical Engine there were some marvellous pieces of automata, ones that are almost worthy of the title of programmable computer:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FUa7oBsSDk8
The fact that this was built over 240 years ago says a lot about the ingenuity that’s contained within it. Indeed the fact that you’re able to code your own message into The Writer, using the set of blocks at the back, is what elevates it above other machines of the time. Sure there were many other automata that were programmable in some fashion, usually by changing a drum, but this one allows configuration on a scale that they simply could not achieve. Probably the most impressive thing about it is that it still works today, something which many machines of today will not be able to claim in 240 years time.
Whilst a machine of this nature might not be able to lay claim to the title of first programmable computer you can definitely see the similarities between it and it’s more complex cousins that came decades later. If anything it’s a testament to the additive nature of technological developments, each one of them building upon the foundations of those that came before it.