The early history of computers Essay

            It is hard to grasp the changes computers have caused in the last fifty years.  The first computers had been built during World War Two.  In 1941 in Germany, Konrad Zuse developed a general purpose programable calculator, pioneering the use of binary math and boolean logic in his devises.  (About: Inventors)  By the war’s end,  he had machines to assist in computations used in airplane design, although these machines were developed so late that they had no impact on German war efforts.  On their part, the British had developed a machine to break German codes.  In the United States, scientists and engineers at  at the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Electrical Engineering developed ENIAC (the Electronic Numerical Integrator Analyzor and Computer) to assist in computing firing manuals for artillery, but it became operational only in November 1945 - The early history of computers Essay introduction. (Glass)

            The early machines were built in secret, and each was custom designed and programmed.  (Cite) Only in the middle years of the decade in computers become commercially available.  Even then, “software” writing was often a per unit process.  Each computer, crude if compared to modern machines, often filled a small room.   Each “job” was input separately, often by an operator, who carefully guarded the machine from the abuse of non-specialists.  Jobs were keyed onto punch cards which were fed into the machine’s card reader. (Glass)

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            The decade following the War saw several major advances.  The transistor was invented in 1947.(About Inventors)  FORTRAN, the first high-level programming language allowed data input using computer punch cards.  In the early 1950’s, team from Bank of America, General Electric, and Stanford University perfected optical character recognition, allowing computers to read checks.  However, the integrated circuit, the basic computer “chip” had not yet been developed.  (Glass)  With the UNIVAC (Universal Automatic Computer) in 1951, engineers were able to store an unheard of 12,000 digits in memory (12K).  The desk-top computer was still

in the realm of science fantasy. (History of Computers)

            In 1954, IBM announced the manufacture of the IBM 650 Magnetic Drum Data Processing Machine, and in August 1955, Columbia University entered the computer age, when two of these machines were installed at the university’s IBM Watson Scientific Computing Laboratory at Columbia University.  This unit became IBM’s first commercial business computer, while its 701 was installed for scientific uses.   The 650 used vacuum-tube logic, drum-memory, and a decimal rather than binary math codes.   The two 650s supported more than 200 Columbia research projects, and were also used as the tools in something new at the school: the teaching of courses on computer science.  The primary use for these machines was simply showing that they could do basic mathematical calculations with astounding speed and without fatigue, a feature that would usher in the computer age.  The 650 also served another purpose, showing that computers could be profitable.   (The IBM 650)

            Until the mid-to-late 1950s, the word “computer” referred to people who performed computations, not to a machine.  But before the decade was out, “digital computer” applied to the 650 and other “giant brains.”  (History of Computers)

            The 650 was a true general-purpose computer, the natural evolution of the CPC (Card Programmed Calculator) to a stored-program computer with a full set of decimal arithmetic, logical, and control instructions, and the ability to handle alphabetic data.  By 1957 a FORTRAN compiler was available.  The IBM 650 could also used a variety of other machine languages.  Although FORTRAN — the first high-level, machine-independent programming language — marked a huge leap in user friendliness, FORTRAN still required input by punching cards and the process of inputting even the most basic instructions was complex, slow, and involved.  (The IBM 650; History of Computers)

            One other development of note occurred during this period.  On October 28, 1955, in Seattle, William Henry (“Bill”) Gates was born.


Glass, Robert.  An early history of software engineering.  Foundations of Software Engineering    Oct. 8, 2002, accessed Jan. 16, 2007.  Available at <>.  Internet.

“The History of Computers.”,   About: Inventors.  2007, accessed  Jan.  16, 2007. Available at <>.  Internet.

“The IBM 650 Magnetic Drum Calculator.  Aug.9,2005, accessed Jan. 15, 2007.  Available at <>.  Internet.


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