A Brief History of the Computer

Computers and computer applications are on almost every aspect of our daily lives. As like many ordinary objects around us, we may need clearer understanding of what they are. You may ask "What is a computer?" or "What is a software", or "What is a programming language?" First, let's examine the history.

  1. The history of computers starts out about 2000 years ago in Babylonia (Mesopotamia), at the birth of the abacus, a wooden rack holding two horizontal wires with beads strung on them.

  2. Blaise Pascal is usually credited for building the first digital computer in 1642. It added numbers entered with dials and was made to help his father, a tax collector.
    The basic principle of his calculator is still used today in water meters and modern-day odometers. Instead of having a carriage wheel turn the gear, he made each ten-teeth wheel accessible to be turned directly by a person's hand (later inventors added keys and a crank), with the result that when the wheels were turned in the proper sequences, a series of numbers was entered and a cumulative sum was obtained. The gear train supplied a mechanical answer equal to the answer that is obtained by using arithmetic.

    This first mechanical calculator, called the Pascaline, had several disadvantages. Although it did offer a substantial improvement over manual calculations, only Pascal himself could repair the device and it cost more than the people it replaced! In addition, the first signs of technophobia emerged with mathematicians fearing the loss of their jobs due to progress.
  3. A step towards automated computing was the development of punched cards, which were first successfully used with computers in 1890 by Herman Hollerith and James Powers, who worked for the US. Census Bureau. They developed devices that could read the information that had been punched into the cards automatically, without human help. Because of this, reading errors were reduced dramatically, work flow increased, and, most importantly, stacks of punched cards could be used as easily accessible memory of almost unlimited size. Furthermore, different problems could be stored on different stacks of cards and accessed when needed.
  4. These advantages were seen by commercial companies and soon led to the development of improved punch-card using computers created by International Business Machines (IBM), Remington (yes, the same people that make shavers), Burroughs, and other corporations. These computers used electromechanical devices in which electrical power provided mechanical motion -- like turning the wheels of an adding machine. Such systems included features to:
  5. The start of World War II produced a large need for computer capacity, especially for the military. New weapons were made for which trajectory tables and other essential data were needed. In 1942, John P. Eckert, John W. Mauchly, and their associates at the Moore school of Electrical Engineering of University of Pennsylvania decided to build a high - speed electronic computer to do the job. This machine became known as ENIAC (Electrical Numerical Integrator And Calculator)
    Two men (in uniform) being trained to maintain the ENIAC computer. The two women in the photo were programmers. The ENIAC occupied the entire thirty by fifty feet room.
    The size of ENIACís numerical "word" was 10 decimal digits, and it could multiply two of these numbers at a rate of 300 per second, by finding the value of each product from a multiplication table stored in its memory. ENIAC was therefore about 1,000 times faster then the previous generation of relay computers. ENIAC used 18,000 vacuum tubes, about 1,800 square feet of floor space, and consumed about 180,000 watts of electrical power. It had punched card I/O, 1 multiplier, 1 divider/square rooter, and 20 adders using decimal ring counters, which served as adders and also as quick-access (.0002 seconds) read-write register storage. The executable instructions making up a program were embodied in the separate "units" of ENIAC, which were plugged together to form a "route" for the flow of information.
  6. Early in the 50ís two important engineering discoveries changed the image of the electronic - computer field, from one of fast but unreliable hardware to an image of relatively high reliability and even more capability. These discoveries were the magnetic core memory and the Transistor - Circuit Element.
    These technical discoveries quickly found their way into new models of digital computers. RAM capacities increased from 8,000 to 64,000 words in commercially available machines by the 1960ís, with access times of 2 to 3 MS (Milliseconds). These machines were very expensive to purchase or even to rent and were particularly expensive to operate because of the cost of expanding programming. Such computers were mostly found in large computer centers operated by industry, government, and private laboratories - staffed with many programmers and support personnel. This situation led to modes of operation enabling the sharing of the high potential available.
  7. Many companies, such as Apple Computer and Radio Shack, introduced very successful PCís in the 1970's, encouraged in part by a fad in computer (video) games. In the 1980's some friction occurred in the crowded PC field, with Apple and IBM keeping strong. In the manufacturing of semiconductor chips, the Intel and Motorola Corporations were very competitive into the 1980s, although Japanese firms were making strong economic advances, especially in the area of memory chips. By the late 1980s, some personal computers were run by microprocessors that, handling 32 bits of data at a time, could process about 4,000,000 instructions per second.

 

This page is compiled with contents from "A Short History of the Computer" by Meyers, Jeremy. It's vailable at http://www.softlord.com/comp