Definition of a Computer (was: Totally OT, but frustrated.....

Roger Merchberger zmerch at
Sat Mar 26 23:36:36 CST 2005

Rumor has it that Tony Duell may have mentioned these words:

>OK (and this came up in some private e-mail when discussing the major
>off-topic threads here). What is a computer? Becasue I certainly don't 
>have an exact definition.

I always heard it defined (and seemed the most logical/sensible to me) as:

"A computer is a device which can perform arithmetic _and_ logical 
functions without the aid of a human."

Several of my earlier computing textbooks put it in this manner, explained 
why it was so (see below) and it's always worked for me.

That said, a 4-function calculator was not a computer (if that's all the 
underlying hardware could handle[1]), but just about any programmable 
calculator was, if it had any type of control looping abilities, as that's 
the "logical function" aspect of the definition.

This was further broken down to two types of computers: general purpose 
computers and special purpose computers. General purpose computers are 
those that can be reprogrammed for different tasks by the end user; special 
purpose computers are those that serve only one purpose (or set of 
purposes) and cannot be changed without major modifications to the device. 
(Think high-end thermometer computer or databank-type digital watch...)

That's the way I see it, but as my father-in-law used to say, "I may just 
be full of condensed milk."

Roger "Merch" Merchberger

[1] If the hardware itself could perform logical functions, but was 
programmed in such a way that the "end user device" for lack of a better 
term could not, then it was still considered a computer, but a "special 
purpose computer" as mentioned above.

Roger "Merch" Merchberger  --  SysAdmin, Iceberg Computers
zmerch at

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