Electronics Challenge:
Can you define the word computer?

This electronics challenge came to us from Jameco reader Gary Striker.


The Electronics Solution

Gary's definition dates back to the early 70's when it was important to distinguish a computer from a calculator. A calculator, such as the new 1971 Commodore C110, was a straight line processing device. It received and processed data from a keypad and provided an output, no questions asked.

A computer, however, such as the IBM 360 Series, input and processed data like a calculator, but was also able to handle 'IF' logic. This most influential IF word separated the calculator from the computer. This capability provided a dramatic deviation from in-line processing and gave a computer processing device an enormous amount of power to differentiate between two conditions. Electronically, this could be accomplished in a variety of ways, such as comparison, arithmetic and interrogation of logical states.

Notice that there is no rule that says this decision making capability needs to be electrical. In fact, it can be hydraulic, pneumatic, electrical, or any combination of physical parameters that could resolve the question, IF. IF the pressure is greater on one side of an actuator valve, THEN move the actuator to a new position. The key element of interrogation by a computing device is resolution of the IF condition.

Therefore, based on historical significance and scientific argument, Gary's definition is "Computer is or can be ANY device, electrical or otherwise, that has the capability to make a decision," i.e., the device must be able to resolve the IF condition. In modern electrical and physical sciences programming, all logical conditions get resolved with some variation of the IF statement.

Answers from Jameco Readers

If there is one thing we've learned about the engineers that buy from Jameco, for every one opinion there are likely a dozen others. Some will be thought provoking, some seemingly off-the-wall and others downright funny. Here's what Jameco readers sent us as part of this challenge:


A computer is an appliance from hell! – Michael


Computer – An electronic device that enslaves people by forcing them to become dependent on it. When the computer is unavailable people become helpless and unintelligent. The goal of computers is to attach everyone to mobile linkage so they can be tracked and required to place every bit of personal information at the computer's disposal.

I have in the past heard many people complain about their computers and perhaps this definition is appropriate for the way some people feel about being chained to their computers. Try buying a hamburger or anything else when the computers are down. People just do not know how to act without their computers. Perhaps we should classify computers as zombie makers, because sometimes people do not know how to act or even speak unless they can text. – Eddie


A computer is any man-made device that takes in data (any kind), somehow computes an answer then outputs the answer such as an abacus, a scoreboard or a slide rule. The device may depend on human or animal power or even the mind of a human to do the computing but I believe a computer can be almost anything. – Billy


Computer- A portable or stationary electronic device system that can store, retrieve, transmit or receive electronic data by utilizing user inputs to manipulate a computation program for industry and personal use.

Of course I did not read the directions before I sent the first response and I still may get this wrong so.......A computer is me. – Paul


A computer is a device that accepts, stores, processes and displays information.

I use the term "device" because it can be electronic, mechanical, hydraulic, biological, etc.. Not just limited to electronic devices.

I use the term "information" because what a computer is really processing is "information" in any form – numbers, symbols, words, sensory metrics, etc... – GKL

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