The First Computer
Entwhistle Mantelpiece was yet another eminent Victorian without whom a good many of the entries in this… this… whatever it is would not exist. In fact, as inventor of the Slightly Altered Engine, it is unlikely that today’s computer-saturated world would exist as it now does. For undoubtedly, it is Mantelpiece’s contribution that was a vital first step on the long road towards our contemporary computer infested world of desktop and laptop machines.
For centuries Britain had a massively wealthy wool trade, but no-one – especially those in government keen on collecting as much tax as possible – knew precisely how many sheep there actually were in Britain, because at the time no-one could stay awake long enough to count all of them.
What they needed, some bright spark* decided, was a machine to count the sheep for them. A machine it was soon realised - even by those in government who had it explained to them – did not need or want to sleep and could count continuously without a break until every sheep was counted.
The government, therefore, organised a competition for the leading inventors of the day to submit their designs for a sheep-counting machine. Mantelpiece’s design won hands down as soon as the commissioning MPs were shown the etchings of themselves in compromising situations at various brothels in the vicinity of the Houses of Parliament that Mantelpiece had acquired through his contacts in the secret service.
Sadly, though, Mantelpiece’s great machine was never actually completed in his lifetime as the budget for the whole enterprise was used up by those very commissioning MPs that had granted him the contract in the first place. In order to see for themselves the scale of the problem the MPs had organised a fact-finding trip to the heart of sheep country. Once the farmers had been paid for the sheep ‘caught in the company’ of the MPs, the remainder of their budget was used to pay hush money to various shepherds, to bribe the local police and pay off the reporters from the local newspapers who discovered what this fact finding mission by the MPs really entailed.
In the end there wasn’t even enough money left for Mantelpiece to buy a box of bolts to fasten the various parts of his great machine together. He died, some said of a broken heart, others that he died walking off the side of London Bridge during one of London’s notorious pea-soup fogs. Whatever the truth of his demise though, his machine remained un-built and remains so to this day, even though a box of spare bolts, enough to complete the machine, was found at the rear of Mantelpiece’s workshop the day after his funeral.
*Hard to believe, I know, that there should be someone of reasonable intelligence in government service – but these were very different times indeed.