Abstract. In 2021, we are celebrating the 375th birthday of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz
"the world's first computer scientist."[LA14]
Not only was he the first to publish infinitesimal calculus (1684),[L84] he also
designed the first machine that could perform all four arithmetic operations (1673),
and the first with an internal memory.[BL16] He
described the principles of binary computers (1679)[L79][L03][LA14][HO66][LEI21,a,b]
employed by virtually all modern machines.
His formal Algebra of Thought (1686)[L86][WI48] was
deductively equivalent[LE18] to the much later
His Characteristica Universalis & Calculus Ratiocinator
aimed at answering
all possible questions through computation;[WI48]
his "Calculemus!" is one of the defining quotes of the age of enlightenment.
The title "father of computer science" does not seem too immodest.
Leibniz made fundamental contributions to both the theory and the practice of computing.
He has been called the "last universal genius",[PE10]
"the world's first computer scientist,"[LA14]
"the smartest man who ever lived."[SMO13]
While the design of automata dates back at least to antiquity,
e.g., the gear-based Antikythera mechanism (a kind of astronomical calculator) over 2000 years ago,
or the world's first programmable machine by Heron of Alexandria
in the 1st
many aspects of "modern" computer science
can indeed be traced back to Leibniz.
In 1673, he designed the first machine (the step reckoner) that could perform all four arithmetic operations.
beyond the first gear-based data-processing calculator
by Wilhelm Schickard (1623) and the superior Pascaline by Blaise Pascal (1642).
It was emphasized that "being able to compute the four basic arithmetic
operations is equivalent to be able to execute any given numerical computation."[BL16]
In fact, about a quarter-millennium later,
Kurt Gödel used
basic arithmetics to encode arbitrary formal systems and
The step reckoner also was the first machine with an internal memory:
the Leibniz wheel stored the multiplicand of a multiplication, counting the number of subsequent additions.[BL16]
Of course, memory is essential for modern computing.
From 1679-1703, inspired by the ancient binary I Ching from China,
Leibniz documented the binary arithmetics
employed by virtually all modern computers.[L03][L79]
It should be mentioned, however, that binary number encodings per se are much older than that,
dating back to ancient Egypt.
The algorithmic part on binary arithmetic operations is relatively new though.
Compare also Juan Caramuel y Lobkowitz' publication on binary encodings
(1670) and Thomas Harriott's unpublished papers.[IN08][SH51]
In 1679, Leibniz described the very principles of a binary computer.[HO66][L79]
represented "binary numbers using marbles governed by punch cards."[LA14]
"His description describes precisely how electronic computers function. Gravity and movement of marbles are replaced by electrical circuits, but the principle functions in the same way."[LA14]
In 1686, Leibniz created
his formal Algebra of Thought[L86][WI48]
deductively equivalent[LE18] to the much later
Boolean Algebra of 1847.[BOO]
Here the truth values 0 and 1 are linked by elementary operations such as and/or to form possibly complex expressions.
This laid the foundations for the first formal language (1879)
by Gottlob Frege[FRE] and thus for the theory of computation.
Bertrand Russell wrote that Leibniz
advanced the field of formal logic "in a way that had not been seen since Aristotle."[RU45][LA14]
Remarkably, for much of his life, Leibniz pursued the extremely ambitious project to settle
all possible questions through computation.
Inspired by the
13th century scholar Ramon Llull [LL7], he produced
highly influential ideas
on a universal language and a general calculus for reasoning
(Characteristica Universalis & Calculus Ratiocinator).[LE18]
The AI pioneer Norbert Wiener said:
"Indeed, the general idea of a computing machine is nothing but a mechanization of Leibniz's Calculus Ratiocinator."[WI48]
Leibniz' "Calculemus!" is one of the defining quotes of the age of enlightenment:
"If controversies were to arise, there would be no more need of disputation between two philosophers than between two accountants. For it would suffice to take their pencils in their hands, to sit down with their slates and say to each other
[...]: Let us calculate!"[RU58]
As if his achievements in computer science were
not enough to cement Leibniz' legacy as one of the greatest scientists ever,
he also was the first to publish infinitesimal calculus in 1684,[L84][SON18][MAD05]
extending the pioneering work
of Archimedes (perhaps the greatest scientist ever[ARC06])
who introduced infinitesimals over two millennia ago,
and already had special cases of calculus, e.g., for spheres and parabola segments—see also
more recent calculus breakthroughs by Madhava of Sangamagrama and colleagues
in the 14th century.[MAD86][MAD01][MAD05]
As all our time on this earth is finite, here
I won't even mention Leibniz' numerous additional contributions
to mathematics & probability theory, engineering, linguistics, biology, medicine, geology, psychology,
politics, law, ethics, theology, history, philology,
How did the theory of computation progress after Leibniz' death in 1716?
Over 2 centuries later,
extended Frege's above-mentioned Leibniz-inspired
formal language (1879)[FRE] and
finally introduced a universal coding language in 1931-34.[GOD][GOD34][GOD21,a,b]
He used his so-called Gödel Numbering to represent both data (such as axioms and theorems) and programs[VAR13] to show that there are fundamental limitations to what is decidable or
computable, thus dealing a blow to Leibniz' project on universal problem solving.[GOD][GOD34]
His groundbreaking 1931 paper[GOD]
laid the foundations of modern theoretical computer science and the theory of artificial intelligence (AI). Gödel sent shock waves through the academic community when he identified the limits of theorem proving, computing, AI, logics, and mathematics itself. This had enormous impact on science and philosophy of the 20th century (some even misunderstood his result
and thought he showed that humans are superior to AIs[BIB3]).
In 1935, Alonzo Church derived a corollary / extension of Gödel's result by showing that Hilbert & Ackermann's famous Entscheidungsproblem (decision problem) does not have a general solution.[CHU] In 1936, Alan Turing
introduced yet another universal model, the
Turing Machine,[TUR] and
the above-mentioned result.
In the same year of 1936, Emil Post published yet another independent universal model of computing.[POS]
Today we know many such models.
the formal models of Gödel (1931-34), Church (1935), Turing (1936), and Post (1936) were
theoretical pen & paper constructs that cannot directly serve as a foundation for
practical computers. So then how
did practical hardware progress after Leibniz?
The first commercial program-controlled
machines (punch card-based looms) were built in France around
1800 by Joseph-Marie Jacquard and others—perhaps the first "modern"
programmers who wrote the world's first industrial software.
They inspired Ada Lovelace and her mentor
Charles Babbage (UK, circa 1840). He planned but was unable to build a
programmable, general purpose computer (only his non-universal special purpose calculator
led to a working 20th century replica).
In 1941, however,
Konrad Zuse completed
Z3, the world's first practical, working, programmable, general-purpose computer,
based on his 1936 patent application.[ZU36-38][RO98][ZUS21,a,b]
Ignoring the inevitable storage limitations of any physical computer,
the physical hardware of Z3 was indeed
universal in the "modern" sense of
Alan Turing, and Post—simple arithmetic tricks
can compensate for Z3's lack of an explicit
conditional jump instruction.[RO98]
Unlike Babbage, Zuse used Leibniz' binary computations[L79][L03][HO66][LA14]
instead of traditional
This greatly simplified the hardware.
Since the late 20th century, binary
computers based on
Julius Edgar Lilienfeld's field effect transistor principle (1925)[LIL1-2]
have become ubiquitous. Billions of people depend on them
to do everything from making their morning coffee to monitoring their vital signs while in hospital.
In 2021, we are not only celebrating the 375th anniversary of Leibniz, but also the
90th anniversary of Gödel's famous 1931 paper
80th anniversary of
the world's first functional program-controlled computer by Zuse (1941).
10 years to go until the Gödel centennial in 2031,
20 years until the Zuse centennial in 2041, and
1/4 century until the 4th Leibniz centennial in 2046!
Enough time to plan appropriate celebrations.
Thanks to Moshe Vardi, Herbert Bruderer, Jack Copeland, Wolfgang Bibel, Teun Koetsier, Scott Aaronson, Dylan Ashley, Sebastian Oberhoff, Kai Hormann, and several other experts for useful comments on the contents of the four companion articles.[LEI21,a,b][GOD21,a,b][ZUS21,a,b][TUR21] Since science is about self-correction, let me know under firstname.lastname@example.org if you can spot any remaining error. The contents of this article may be used for educational and non-commercial purposes, including articles for Wikipedia and similar sites.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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