History of ComputersOnly once in a lifetime will a new invention come about to touch everyaspect of our lives. Such a device that changes the way we work, live, and playis a special one, indeed. A machine that has done all this and more now existsin nearly every business in the US and one out of every two households (Hall,156). This incredible invention is the computer. The electronic computer hasbeen around for over a half-century, but its ancestors have been around for 2000years.
However, only in the last 40 years has it changed the American society.
From the first wooden abacus to the latest high-speed microprocessor, thecomputer has changed nearly every aspect of people’s lives for the better.
The very earliest existence of the modern day computer’s ancestor is theabacus. These date back to almost 2000 years ago. It is simply a wooden rackholding parallel wires on which beads are strung. When these beads are movedalong the wire according to “programming” rules that the user must memorize, allordinary arithmetic operations can be performed (Soma, 14).
The next innovationin computers took place in 1694 when Blaise Pascal invented the first “digitalcalculating machine”. It could only add numbers and they had to be entered byturning dials. It was designed to help Pascal’s father who was a tax collector(Soma, 32).
In the early 1800’s, a mathematics professor named Charles Babbagedesigned an automatic calculation machine. It was steam powered and could storeup to 1000 50-digit numbers. Built in to his machine were operations thatincluded everything a modern general-purpose computer would need. It wasprogrammed by–and stored data on–cards with holes punched in them,appropriately called “punchcards”. His inventions were failures for the mostpart because of the lack of precision machining techniques used at the time andthe lack of demand for such a device (Soma, 46).
After Babbage, people began to lose interest in computers. However,between 1850 and 1900 there were great advances in mathematics and physics thatbegan to rekindle the interest (Osborne, 45). Many of these new advancesinvolved complex calculations and formulas that were very time consuming forhuman calculation. The first major use for a computer in the US was during the1890 census. Two men, Herman Hollerith and James Powers, developed a newpunched-card system that could automatically read information on cards withouthuman intervention (Gulliver, 82). Since the population of the US wasincreasing so fast, the computer was an essential tool in tabulating the totals.
These advantages were noted by commercial industries and soon led to thedevelopment of improved punch-card business-machine systems by InternationalBusiness Machines (IBM), Remington-Rand, Burroughs, and other corporations. Bymodern standards the punched-card machines were slow, typically processing from50 to 250 cards per minute, with each card holding up to 80 digits. At the time,however, punched cards were an enormous step forward; they provided a means ofinput, output, and memory storage on a massive scale. For more than 50 yearsfollowing their first use, punched-card machines did the bulk of the world’sbusiness computing and a good portion of the computing work in science (Chposky,73).
By the late 1930s punched-card machine techniques had become so wellestablished and reliable that Howard Hathaway Aiken, in collaboration withengineers at IBM, undertook construction of a large automatic digital computerbased on standard IBM electromechanical parts. Aiken’s machine, called theHarvard Mark I, handled 23-digit numbers and could perform all four arithmeticoperations. Also, it had special built-in programs to handle logarithms andtrigonometric functions. The Mark I was controlled from prepunched paper tape.
Output was by card punch and electric typewriter. It was slow, requiring 3 to 5seconds for a multiplication, but it was fully automatic and could complete longcomputations without human intervention (Chposky, 103).
The outbreak of World War II produced a desperate need for computingcapability, especially for the military. New weapons systems were producedwhich needed trajectory tables and other essential data.
In 1942, John P. Eckert, John W. Mauchley, and their associates at theUniversity of Pennsylvania decided to build a high-speed electronic computer todo the job. This machine became known as ENIAC, for “Electrical NumericalIntegrator And Calculator”. It could multiply two numbers at the rate of 300products per second, by finding the value of each product from a multiplicationtable stored in its memory. ENIAC was thus about 1,000 times faster than theprevious generation of computers (Dolotta, 47).
ENIAC used 18,000 standard vacuum tubes, occupied 1800 square feet offloor space, and used about 180,000 watts of electricity. It used punched-cardinput and output. The ENIAC was very difficult to program because one had toessentially re-wire it to perform whatever task he wanted the computer to do.
It was, however, efficient in handling the particular programs for which it hadbeen designed. ENIAC is generally accepted as the first successful high-speedelectronic digital computer and was used in many applications from 1946 to 1955(Dolotta, 50).
Mathematician John von Neumann was very interested in the ENIAC. In 1945he undertook a theoretical study of computation that demonstrated that acomputer could have a very simple and yet be able to execute any kind ofcomputation effectively by means of proper programmed control without the needfor any changes in hardware. Von Neumann came up with incredible ideas formethods of building and organizing practical, fast computers. These ideas,which came to be referred to as the stored-program technique, became fundamentalfor future generations of high-speed digital computers and were universallyadopted (Hall, 73).
The first wave of modern programmed electronic computers to takeadvantage of these improvements appeared in 1947. This group included computersusing random access memory (RAM), which is a memory designed to give almostconstant access to any particular piece of information (Hall, 75). Thesemachines had punched-card or punched-tape input and output devices and RAMs of1000-word capacity. Physically, they were much more compact than ENIAC: somewere about the size of a grand piano and required 2500 small electron tubes.
This was quite an improvement over the earlier machines. The first-generationstored-program computers required considerable maintenance, usually attained 70%to 80% reliable operation, and were used for 8 to 12 years. Typically, theywere programmed directly in machine language, although by the mid-1950s progresshad been made in several aspects of advanced programming. This group ofmachines included EDVAC and UNIVAC, the first commercially available computers(Hazewindus, 102).
The UNIVAC was developed by John W. Mauchley and John Eckert, Jr. in the1950’s. Together they had formed the Mauchley-Eckert Computer Corporation,America’s first computer company in the 1940’s. During the development of theUNIVAC, they began to run short on funds and sold their company to the largerRemington-Rand Corporation. Eventually they built a working UNIVAC computer.
It was delivered to the US Census Bureau in 1951 where it was used to helptabulate the US population (Hazewindus, 124).
Early in the 1950s two important engineering discoveries changed theelectronic computer field. The first computers were made with vacuum tubes, butby the late 1950’s computers were being made out of transistors, which weresmaller, less expensive, more reliable, and more efficient (Shallis, 40). In1959, Robert Noyce, a physicist at the Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation,invented the integrated circuit, a tiny chip of silicon that contained an entireelectronic circuit. Gone was the bulky, unreliable, but fast machine; nowcomputers began to become more compact, more reliable and have more capacity(Shallis, 49).
These new technical discoveries rapidly found their way into new modelsof digital computers. Memory storage capacities increased 800% in commerciallyavailable machines by the early 1960s and speeds increased by an equally largemargin. These machines were very expensive to purchase or to rent and wereespecially expensive to operate because of the cost of hiring programmers toperform the complex operations the computers ran. Such computers were typicallyfound in large computer centers–operated by industry, government, and privatelaboratories–staffed with many programmers and support personnel (Rogers, 77).
By 1956, 76 of IBM’s large computer mainframes were in use, compared with only46 UNIVAC’s (Chposky, 125).
In the 1960s efforts to design and develop the fastest possiblecomputers with the greatest capacity reached a turning point with the completionof the LARC machine for Livermore Radiation Laboratories by the Sperry-RandCorporation, and the Stretch computer by IBM. The LARC had a core memory of98,000 words and multiplied in 10 microseconds. Stretch was provided withseveral ranks of memory having slower access for the ranks of greater capacity,the fastest access time being less than 1 microseconds and the total capacity inthe vicinity of 100 million words (Chposky, 147).
During this time the major computer manufacturers began to offer a rangeof computer capabilities, as well as various computer-related equipment. Theseincluded input means such as consoles and card feeders; output means such aspage printers, cathode-ray-tube displays, and graphing devices; and optionalmagnetic-tape and magnetic-disk file storage. These found wide use in businessfor such applications as accounting, payroll, inventory control, orderingsupplies, and billing. Central processing units (CPUs) for such purposes didnot need to be very fast arithmetically and were primarily used to access largeamounts of records on file. The greatest number of computer systems weredelivered for the larger applications, such as in hospitals for keeping track ofpatient records, medications, and treatments given. They were also used inautomated library systems and in database systems such as the Chemical Abstractssystem, where computer records now on file cover nearly all known chemicalcompounds (Rogers, 98).
The trend during the 1970s was, to some extent, away from extremelypowerful, centralized computational centers and toward a broader range ofapplications for less-costly computer systems. Most continuous-processmanufacturing, such as petroleum refining and electrical-power distributionsystems, began using computers of relatively modest capability for controllingand regulating their activities. In the 1960s the programming of applicationsproblems was an obstacle to the self-sufficiency of moderate-sized on-sitecomputer installations, but great advances in applications programming languagesremoved these obstacles. Applications languages became available forcontrolling a great range of manufacturing processes, for computer operation ofmachine tools, and for many other tasks (Osborne, 146). In 1971 Marcian E. Hoff,Jr., an engineer at the Intel Corporation, invented the microprocessor andanother stage in the development of the computer began (Shallis, 121).
A new revolution in computer hardware was now well under way, involvingminiaturization of computer-logic circuitry and of component manufacture by whatare called large-scale integration techniques. In the 1950s it was realizedthat “scaling down” the size of electronic digital computer circuits and partswould increase speed and efficiency and improve performance. However, at thattime the manufacturing methods were not good enough to accomplish such a task.
About 1960 photo printing of conductive circuit boards to eliminate wiringbecame highly developed. Then it became possible to build resistors andcapacitors into the circuitry by photographic means (Rogers, 142). In the 1970sentire assemblies, such as adders, shifting registers, and counters, becameavailable on tiny chips of silicon. In the 1980s very large scale integration(VLSI), in which hundreds of thousands of transistors are placed on a singlechip, became increasingly common. Many companies, some new to the computerfield, introduced in the 1970s programmable minicomputers supplied with softwarepackages. The size-reduction trend continued with the introduction of personalcomputers, which are programmable machines small enough and inexpensive enoughto be purchased and used by individuals (Rogers, 153).
One of the first of such machines was introduced in January 1975.
Popular Electronics magazine provided plans that would allow any electronicswizard to build his own small, programmable computer for about $380 (Rose, 32).
The computer was called the “Altair 8800O. Its programming involved pushingbuttons and flipping switches on the front of the box. It didn’t include amonitor or keyboard, and its applications were very limited (Jacobs, 53). Eventhough, many orders came in for it and several famous owners of computer andsoftware manufacturing companies got their start in computing through the Altair.
For example, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, founders of Apple Computer, built amuch cheaper, yet more productive version of the Altair and turned their hobbyinto a business (Fluegelman, 16).
After the introduction of the Altair 8800, the personal computerindustry became a fierce battleground of competition. IBM had been the computerindustry standard for well over a half-century. They held their position as thestandard when they introduced their first personal computer, the IBM Model 60 in1975 (Chposky, 156). However, the newly formed Apple Computer company wasreleasing its own personal computer, the Apple II (The Apple I was the firstcomputer designed by Jobs and Wozniak in Wozniak’s garage, which was notproduced on a wide scale). Software was needed to run the computers as well.
Microsoft developed a Disk Operating System (MS-DOS) for the IBM computer whileApple developed its own software system (Rose, 37). Because Microsoft had nowset the software standard for IBMs, every software manufacturer had to maketheir software compatible with Microsoft’s. This would lead to huge profits forMicrosoft (Cringley, 163).
The main goal of the computer manufacturers was to make the computer asaffordable as possible while increasing speed, reliability, and capacity.
Nearly every computer manufacturer accomplished this and computers popped upeverywhere. Computers were in businesses keeping track of inventories.
Computers were in colleges aiding students in research. Computers were inlaboratories making complex calculations at high speeds for scientists andphysicists. The computer had made its mark everywhere in society and built up ahuge industry (Cringley, 174). The future is promising for the computerindustry and its technology. The speed of processors is expected to doubleevery year and a half in the coming years. As manufacturing techniques arefurther perfected the prices of computer systems are expected to steadily fall.
However, since the microprocessor technology will be increasing, it’s highercosts will offset the drop in price of older processors. In other words, theprice of a new computer will stay about the same from year to year, buttechnology will steadily increase (Zachary, 42)Since the end of World War II, the computer industry has grown from astanding start into one of the biggest and most profitable industries in theUnited States. It now comprises thousands of companies, making everything frommulti-million dollar high-speed super computers to printout paper and floppydisks. It employs millions of people and generates tens of billions of dollarsin sales each year (Malone, 192). Surely, the computer has impacted everyaspect of people’s lives. It has affected the way people work and play. It hasmade everyone’s life easier by doing difficult work for people. The computertruly is one of the most incredible inventions in history.
Works CitedChposky, James. Blue Magic. New York: Facts on File Publishing. 1988.
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Fluegelman, Andrew. “A New World”, MacWorld. San Jose, Ca: MacWorld Publishing,February, 1984 (Premire Issue).
Hall, Peter. Silicon Landscapes. Boston: Allen & Irwin, 1985Gulliver, David. Silicon Valey and Beyond. Berkeley, Ca: Berkeley AreaGovernment Press, 1981.
Hazewindus, Nico. The U.S. Microelectronics Industry. New York: Pergamon Press,1988.
Jacobs, Christopher W. “The Altair 8800O, Popular Electronics. New York:Popular Electronics Publishing, January 1975.
Malone, Michael S. The Big Scare: The U.S. Computer Industry. Garden City, NY:Doubleday & Co., 1985.
Osborne, Adam. Hypergrowth. Berkeley, Ca: Idthekkethan Publishing Company,1984.
Rogers, Everett M. Silicon Valey Fever. New York: Basic Books, Inc. Publishing,1984.
Rose, Frank. West of Eden. New York: Viking Publishing, 1989.
Shallis, Michael. The Silicon Idol. New York: Shocken Books, 1984.
Soma, John T. The History of the Computer. Toronto: Lexington Books, 1976.
Zachary, William. “The Future of computing”, Byte. Boston: Byte Publishing,August 1994.
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