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It’s because of mathematicians that we have computers today. The objects in this image bank showcase the tools, people and challenges behind the development of computers.

Computing is one of the biggest technological innovations of the past century.

‘Computer’ used to refer to a person who did calculations by hand. The desire to do larger calculations faster motivated the development of electronic devices to process information, paving the way for today’s computers.

The mathematical skills of problem-solving, logical reasoning and creativity pushed these innovators to see beyond what was currently possible.

The following images showcase the tools, people and challenges behind the development of computers.

Images in this resource

On the left is a watercolour portrait of Ada Lovelace, a woman with pale skin and dark hair. She wears a purple gown with a black lace veil with gold and black accents. On the right is a photograph of Charles Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2, made from wood and metal.


Click the thumbnails to skip to the full pictures.

Using images in your classroom

Our Science Museum Group museums are full of amazing objects which are all examples of how STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) has changed our everyday lives.

You can use images:

  • To hook students’ interest at the start of a lesson or to introduce a new topic.
  • To highlight the relevance and practical applications of school subjects in our everyday lives.
  • As part of a discussion to explore the stories of the people who have shaped the world we live in through their passion and creativity.
  • As mystery objects to get your students using their STEM skills such as observation, using prior knowledge and asking questions.
  • To create a display of applications of maths in your classroom, connecting past, present and future examples of technology.
  • In a pre-visit activity to familiarise students with some of the objects and themes they will find in the Science Museum.

talk about…

Use these questions to help spark discussion with the different images:

  • Why were computers invented? What did people use before computers?
  • How often do you use a computer? Can you imagine your life without them?
  • What skills do you think mathematicians have?
  • What interests you or surprises you about the images?
  • What do these photographs not tell us?
  • What would you like to know more about? How could you find out more?

Chinese abacus

An abacus made out of wood. An abacus is made up of 13 vertical rods separated by a beam. Above the beam, each rod has two beads. Below the beam, each rod has 5 beads. Notes say that the beads above the beam have a value of five, while each bead below the beam has a value of one.

Long before computers, tools like this Chinese abacus were used for calculations.

Abacuses have been used historically throughout the world. The first one was invented over 2,000 years ago.

They are still used today in some stores to tally customers’ bills.

Think and talk about…

What other ways can you think of that humans have used to help us count?

How to use an abacus

Each rod has a place value, with the far right representing ‘ones’.

To start, move the beads away from the centre beam.

A vector image showing an abacus: 13 vertical rods separated by a beam. Above the beam, each rod has two beads. Below the beam, each rod has 5 beads. Notes say that the beads above the beam have a value of five, while each bead below the beam has a value of one.

  1. To show 1, move one bead on the far right, from below up to the centre.
  2. To show 5, move one bead on the far right, from above down to the centre.
  3. How would you show 7?

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Morland’s calculating machine

A close up photograph of Morland's calculating machine. It's a small rectangle shaped object made from metal. On it are a series of dials, each with an even smaller dial that can be turned by hand above them. Engravings name them as "Tenth", "Thousands", "Hundreds", "Tens", "Unites[sic]", "Shillings", "Pence" and "Farthings". On the bottom right corner "Samuel Morland, Inventor 1666" is engraved.

After studying mathematics, spy-turned-inventor Sir Samuel Morland was the first English maker to design calculating machines.

He marketed his machines to wealthy people with little maths experience, as the machines enabled them to easily add and subtract British currency by turning the wheels.

Think and talk about…

Look closer. How do you think the machine worked?

If you were an inventor today, what would be the first thing you would want to invent?

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Slide rule for weights and measures

Photograph of a slide rule on a black background. It's made out of wood, with yellowed paper on top featuring lots of writing. In the middle there is a strip that can be moved up or down with numbers are etched onto it. Close up of the slide rule. You can see the middle strip has lines either side of the number to connect it to either side. The number 10 points to "Wine Gallon" on the left, and "NAPOLEON" on the right.

Your grandparents may have had slide rules.

Used until the 1970s, they helped people do calculations quickly. Instead of pressing buttons, like on a calculator, you used the sliding middle part to help you work out answers.

This 19th-century slide rule calculates in various weights and measures such as yards, metres, acres and pints.

Think and talk about…

Why do you think people measure in different units throughout the world? For example, here in the UK we measure distance on our roads in miles, but France uses kilometres.

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Ada Lovelace and Babbage’s analytical engine

On the left is a watercolour portrait of Ada Lovelace, a woman with pale skin and dark hair. She wears a purple gown with a black lace veil with gold and black accents. On the right is a photograph of Charles Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2, made from wood and metal.

Ada Lovelace worked with Charles Babbage on the concept for the analytical engine, the first fully automatic calculating machine.

She speculated about the possibilities of such a device, and was one of the first people to recognise the potential of computers. She believed imagination was critical for applying mathematic and scientific concepts.

Think and talk about…

Do you think imagination is important in maths and science? Why?

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Lovelace, Turing and the invention of computers

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Enigma cipher machine

Photograph of an Enigma machine on a white background. It's a square shaped black metal device, encased in light wood. The lid is open, and on the top of the device is a set of three metal wheels, each with the alphabet printed on them. In front of that is a series of small glass bulbs, and a keyboard made up of circular shaped keys. Numbers and letters are printed on the front of the boxc, each with a small socket. Various leads are tangled and plugged into some of these sockets.

Enigma cipher machines encrypted millions of military messages during the Second World War.

These machines had around 150,000,000,000,000,000,000 different settings (150 quintillion or 150 million million million)!

To break the code, mathematicians were challenged to develop something that could quickly go through all the possible settings. This development was the precursor to modern computers.

Think and talk about…

What information do you think it’s important to try and keep secure? Think about personal as well as national information.

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Explore a 3D model of an Enigma cipher machine

Try making a secret message using the cipher wheel

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Women office workers, 1935

Black and white photograph of six white women working in a small office. Behind them is a frosted glass panel, and to the left is a large window. Each woman sits at an individual machine. These machines have a series of switches and dials on the front, and large sheets of paper at the back. Many of them have more piles of large paper to the side that they are reading.

Before there were electronic computers, ‘computer’ described a job for someone who did calculations. Computers worked in lots of different areas, including in research and development such as the early space programme.

This image shows Great Western Railway office staff using calculating machines to help them work on the company’s finances.

Think and talk about…

What skills would be needed for the job of computer? Would you enjoy being a computer?

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Women in Computing

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Replica of the ‘Baby’ or SSEM computer

Photograph of the computer ‘Baby’ in a room with a wooden floor and red walls. The computer itself is made up of eight stands, connected by hundreds of black wires, most of which are pulled together at the back. Each stand has multiple sections with various dials, switches, lights and sockets connected by even more wires.

Built in 1948, this was the first computer to run and store a program. Nicknamed ‘Baby’, it was over 5 metres long, 2 metres tall and weighed almost 1,000 kilograms.

Baby was the first step towards the digital world we know today, as even modern computers build on Baby’s basic principles.

Think and talk about…

These computers filled an entire room. How would life be different if computers were still that large?

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Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) pilot model

Photograph of the ACE model against a blue background. The machine is in two parts: the first part is a wooden console that is big enough or a person to sit at like a desk. There is a black switchboard embedded into the wood, with white and red buttons. In the top left there is a large viewfinder with small handles either side. Next to it is a large metal frame that holds around 45 vertical strips that are also made of metal. Each strip has various plastic tubes in different colours: black, white, blue, green, red and yellow. One of the strips is pulled out to show that the tubes are connected by an an intricate maze of wiring.

The Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) was the fastest mathematical calculating machine of its day.

The pilot model was designed by mathematician Alan Turing and completed in 1950.

The goal was to create an electronic calculator. The team pushed the boundaries of what was possible.

Think and talk about…

The Automatic Computing Engine took years to make. How do you think people felt when they first used it?

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Electronic storm surge modelling machine

Photograph of Ishiguro’s storm model against a white background. On the left is a metal shelving unit holding various bits of equipment, including: a printer; a small oscilloscope, which is where you would see results of electrical stimulation; a black floppy disk drive; an early home computer in cream coloured plastic with black accents and keys; three larger metal containers that house circuits. On the right is a large, two-sided rack. The top half of the rack contains cables and connectors to a small circuit board in the middle. The bottom half contains rows and rows of small circular tubes, called capacitors.

Maths can be used to predict floods.

Shizuo Ishiguro made this electronic model of the North Sea. It was almost 2 metres high and was used for several years to model ocean behaviour, predicting floods and other disasters.

Think and talk about…

Imagine if you could use computer programs to predict anything. What would you want to know?

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Explore a 3D model of Ishiguro’s storm model

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Portable electronic calculator

Photograph of the calculator on a light grey background. The device is sitting in an open black box that has a metal handle and bright red lining. The device itself is made from metal and plastic. The top half is black plastic, with a small metal power button on the right-hand side and the Sanyo logo is printed underneath. The bottom half of the device features black circular calculator buttons.

When the Sanyo ICC-82D portable calculator was released in 1970 it would have cost more than your mobile phone.

It retailed at about £170; in today’s money that would be £1,500!

Think and talk about…

This was one of the first hand-held battery-powered calculators. How much would you pay for a brand-new piece of technology?

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The first Apple computer

Photograph of the original Apple computer against a light grey background. The screen is small and square, mounted on a metal box with four knobs at the front. The back of the screen is without a case so the motherboard and wires are visible. The screen sits on top of a keyboard made from wood, with light grey plastic buttons.

The original Apple computer was designed in a family garage in 1976. Customers bought a basic circuit board and added their own display units and keyboards. About 180 of these computers were sold in total, making this a rare object.

Think and talk about…

Many people designing computers at this time were tinkerers working out of their garages. They used their mathematical skills, problem-solving and reasoning to improve the circuit board and the software that would communicate with it. If you could improve a modern invention, what would it be and how would you improve it?

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Atari 2600, an early games console

Photograph of the Atari 2600 on a white background. The console itself is made from black plastic, with a wooden panel at the front that has the Atari logo printed on it in white. At the top of the console are multiple switches which read: power (on/off); tv type (color/b.w.); left difficulty (a/b); right difficulty (a/b); game select; game reset. A black plastic cartridge is embedded in the middle of these switches with a label saying “space invaders”. Between the switches and the wooden panel there are grooves in the plastic, and two hollow circles underneath that allow sound to escape from. Connected to the device by black cables are two palm-sized black plastic controllers. Each one has a red plastic button on the side, and a large dial that you can spin. The label underneath says “paddle” and has a logo of two tennis rackets and a ball. On the right-hand side of the photo is another type of controller: this one is square-shaped and slightly larger. There is a small circular red button in the top left corner, and a black plastic stick that can be moved in any direction.

The Atari 2600 was one of the earliest games consoles. It brought arcade games into our living rooms for the first time.

Released in 1977, it included Space Invaders and Pac Man, and was hugely popular, selling over 30 million units until it was discontinued in 1992.

Think and talk about…

Maths is essential for computer and video game programmers. For example, a logical program that details character movements and connects them to button presses will need to quantify things like the height of a jump and the length of a step. If you were to design a video game, what would it be about?

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A short history of video games, 1951-2011

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Tim Berners-Lee’s computer

Photograph of the NeXTcube against a black background. The machine consists of a square-shaped screen, a computer keyboard, a computer mouse and a cube-shaped unit. All elements are made from black plastic and feature a small red, yellow and green NeXT logo on them. The cube shapped unit has a scuffed label on the front, with red writing that says: “This machine is a SERVER. DO NOT POWER DOWN!!”

In 1990 this machine, the NeXTcube, was the one and only web server. Turning it off would have turned off the World Wide Web.

Tim Berners-Lee, developer of the World Wide Web, was interested in mathematics and electronics throughout his childhood.

Think and talk about…

Berners-Lee was able to problem-solve and put existing parts into a greater whole. Think of an example of when you solved a problem.

Which websites would cause the biggest problems for society if they crashed?

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The World Wide Web: a global information space

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Nao V5 Evolution humanoid robot

Photograph of the Nao V5 Evolution on a black background. The robot is an abstract humanoid shape with a head, torso and limbs as well as hands and feet. The design of these are stylised and not made to resemble actual humans. The head features a shiny blue helmet, round speakers where ears would be, two eye holes and a small mouth printed in the shape of a smile. They have a curious and inquisitive face. The shoulders have shiny blue plastic shoulder pads, and the torso is curved in a downward triangle shape. Across it is a swirly blue plastic plate, and in the middle is a large round blue button. The robot is sitting with their hands resting on the floor, and their knee joints bent. Their legs and arms are curved with blue plastic accents on the lower legs and front of their feet.

Can a robot do everything?

The Nao V5 Evolution (2014) is a programmable humanoid robot. It is 58cm tall and has cameras that recognise shapes and sensors to perceive its environment. Nao interacts via microphones and speakers, but it requires a human to program it and only does what it’s programmed to do.

Think and talk about…

Maths is not only needed for the programming of the robot, but also for the design. What shape will it be? How will it move?

What do you think the next steps for computing technology could be?

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