In a nutshell:
What characterizes imperative programming languages as close to Turing
machines and to usual computers such as PCs, (themselves closer to
random access machines (RAM) rather than to Turing machine) is the
concept of an explicit memory that can be modified to store (intermediate results). It is an automata view of computation, with a concept of a
state (comprising both finite state control and memory content) that can change as the computation proceed.
Most other models are more abstract. Though they may express the
computation as a succession of transformation steps of an original
structure, these transformation are applied in a sort of intemporal
universe of mathematical meanings. This may preserve properties, such
as referential transparency, that may make mathematical analysis
simpler. But it is more remote from natural physical models that rely
on the concpet of memory.
Thus there are no natural functional machines, except in a larger sense
as explained below, since software is not really separable from
The reference to Turing as the yardstick of computability comes probably from the fact that his model, the Turing machine was closest to this physical realizability constraint, which made it a more intuitive model of computation.
There are many models of computation, which were designed to capture in
the most general possible way the concept of a computation. They
include Turing machines, actually in many different flavors, the
lambda calculus (flavors too), semi-Thue rewriting systems, partial
They all capture some aspects of the various techniques used by
mathematicians to express or conduct computations. And most have
been used to some extent as the basis of some programming language
design (e.g. Snobol for rewriting systems, APL for combinators, Lisp/Scheme for lambda calculus) and can often be combined in diverse ways in modern programming languages.
One major result is that all these computation models were proved
equivalent, which lead to the Church-Turing thesis that no physically
realizable models of computation can do more than any of these models.
A model of computation is said Turing complete if it can be proved
to be equivalent to one of these models, hence equivalent to all of
The name could have been different. The choice of the Turing machine
(TM) as the reference is probably due to the fact that it is probably
the simplest of these models, mimicking closely (though
simplistically) the way a human computes and fairly easy to implement
(in a limited finite form) as a physical device, to such an extent
that Turing machines have been constructed with Lego sets. The basic idea requires no mathematical sophistication. It is probably the simplicity and
realizability of the model that gave it this reference position.
At the time Alan Turing created his computing device, other proposals
were on the table to serve as formal definition of computability, a
crucial issue for the foundations of mathematics (see
Entscheidungsproblem). The Turing proposal was considered by the
experts of the time as the one most convincingly encompassing known
work on what calculability should be (see Computability and
Recursion, R.I. Soare, 1996, see section 3.2). The various proposals were proved equivalent, but Turing's was more convincing. [from comments by Yuval Filmus]
It should be noted that, from a hardware point of view, our computers
are not Turing machines, but rather what is called Random Access
Machines (RAM), which are also Turing complete.
Purely imperative language (whatever that might mean) are probably the
formalisms used for the most basic models, such as Turing machines, or
the assembly language (skipping its binary coding) of computers. Both
are notoriously unreadable, and very hard to write significant
programs with. Actually, even assembly language has some higher level
features to ease programming a bit, compared to direct use of machine
instructions. Basic imperative models are closed to the physical
worlds, but not very usable.
This led quickly to the development of higher level models of
computation, which started mixing to it a variety of computational
techniques, such as subprogram and function calls, naming of memory
location, scoping of names, quantification and dummy variables,
already used in some form in mathematics and logic, and even very
abstract concepts such as reflection (Lisp 1958).
The classification of programming languages into programming paradigm
such as imperative, functional, logic, object oriented is based of the
preeminence of some of these techniques in the design of the language,
and the presence or absence fo some computing features that enforce
some properties for programs or program fragments written in the
Some models are convenient for physical machines. Some others are more
convenient for a high-level description of algorithms, it that may
depend on the type of algorithm that is to be described. Some
theoretician even use non deterministic specification of algorithms,
and even that cn be translated in more conventional programming terms.
But there is no mismatch problem, because we developed a sophisticated compiler/interpreter technology that can translate each model into another as needed (which is also the basis of the Church-Turing thesis).
Now, you should never look at your computer as raw hardware. It does
contain boolean circuitry that does very elementary processing. But
much of it is driven by micro-programs inside the computer that you
never get to know about. Then you have the operating system that makes
your machine appear even different from what the hardware does, On top
of that you may have a virtual machine that executes byte-code, and
then a high-level language such as Pyva and Jathon, or Haskell, or
OCaml, that can be compiled into byte code.
At each level you see a different computation model. It is very hard
to separate hardware level from the software level thus to assign a
specific computational model to a machine. And since they are all
intertranslatable, the idea of an ultimate hardware computation model
is pretty much an illusion.
The lambda calculus machine does exist: it is a computer that can
reduce lambda calculus expressions. Ad that is easily done.
About specialized machine architectures
Actually, complementing Peter Taylor's answer, and following up on
hardware/software intertwinning, specialized machines have been
produced to be better adapted to a specific paradigm, and had their
basic software written in a programming language based on that
Fundamentally, these are also imperative hardware structures, but mitigated with
special harware features or microprogrammed interpreters to better
adapt to the intended paradigm.
Actually, hardware specialized for specific paradigms does not seem to
have ever been successful in the long run. The reason is that the
compiling technology to implement any paradigm on vanilla hardware
became more and more effective, so that specialized hardware was not
so much needed. In addition, harware performance was fast improving,
but the cost of improvement (including evolution of basic software)
was more easily amortized on vanilla hardware than on specialized
hardware. Specialized hardware could not compete in the long run.
Nevertheless, and though I have no precise data on this, I would suspect that these ventures left some ideas that did influence the evolution of machines, memories, and instruction sets architecture.