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History of the Computer – Computers and Technology

The volume and use of computers around the world is so large that it has become hard to ignore. Computers appear to us in so many ways that often we don’t see them as they really are. People associated with a computer when buying their morning coffee from the vending machine. As they drive to work, the traffic lights that so often get in our way are controlled by computers in an attempt to speed up the journey. Accept it or not, the computer has invaded our lives.

The origins and roots of computers started like many other inventions and technologies in the past. They evolved from a relatively simple idea or blueprint designed to help perform functions easier and faster. The first type of basic computers were designed to do just that; calculate!. They performed basic mathematical functions such as multiplication and division and displayed the results in a variety of methods. Some computers displayed the results in a binary representation of electronic lamps. Binary means using only ones and zeros. Thus, the lit lamps represented ones and the extinguished lamps represented zeros. The irony of this is that people had to perform another mathematical function to translate the binary to decimal to make it readable by the user.

One of the first computers was called ENIAC. It was a huge, monstrous size almost that of a standard railroad car. It contained electronic tubes, heavy gauge wiring, angle iron and knife switches to name a few of the components. It’s become hard to believe that computers evolved into the suitcase-sized microcomputers of the 1990s.

Computers eventually evolved into less archaic devices around the end of the 1960s. They had shrunk to the size of a small automobile, and they processed segments of information at faster speeds than older models. Most computers at that time were called “mainframe computers” due to the fact that many computers were linked together to perform a given function. The primary users of these types of computers were military agencies and large corporations such as Bell, AT&T, General Electric, and Boeing. Organizations like these had the funds to afford such technologies. However, operating these computers required considerable intelligence and manpower resources. The average person couldn’t have imagined trying to run and use those million dollar processors.

The United States was awarded the title of computer pioneers. It wasn’t until the early 1970s that countries like Japan and the UK started using their own technology for computer development. This resulted in newer components and smaller computers. The use and operation of computers had taken on a form that people of average intelligence could handle and manipulate without too much difficulty. When the economies of other nations began to compete with the United States, the computer industry grew at a breakneck pace. Prices have dropped dramatically and computers have become more affordable for the average household.

Like the invention of the wheel, the computer is here to stay. Operating and using computers in our present day of the 1990s has become so easy and simple that we may have taken too much of it for granted. Almost everything useful in society requires some form of training or education. Many people say that the predecessor of the computer was the typewriter. The typewriter definitely required training and experience in order to operate it at a usable and efficient level. Children learn basic computer skills in the classroom to prepare them for the future development of the computer age.

The history of computers begins about 2000 years ago, with the birth of the abacus, a wooden shelf containing two horizontal wires on which beads are strung. When these marbles are moved, according to programming rules memorized by the user, all the usual arithmetic problems can be solved. Another important invention around the same time was the Astrolabe, used for navigation.

Blaise Pascal is generally credited with building the first digital computer in 1642. It added digits entered with dials and was designed to help his father, a tax collector. In 1671 Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz invented a computer which was built in 1694. It could add and, after changing some things, multiply. Leibnitz invented a special stopped-gear mechanism to introduce the extra digits, and this is still in use.

The prototypes made by Pascal and Leibnitz were not used in many places and considered odd until just over a century later when Thomas de Colmar (aka Charles Xavier Thomas) created the first mechanical calculator blockbuster that could add, subtract, multiply, and divide. Many improved desktop calculators by many inventors followed, so that around 1890 the range of improvements included: accumulation of partial results, storage and automatic re-entry of previous results (memory function A) and the printing of results. Each of them required manual installation. These enhancements were primarily made for commercial users, not for science purposes.

While Thomas de Colmar was developing the desktop calculator, a series of very interesting computer developments were started in Cambridge, England, by Charles Babbage (for whom the computer shop “Babbages” is named), professor of mathematics. In 1812, Babbage realized that many long calculations, especially those needed to make mathematical tables, were actually a series of predictable actions that repeated themselves constantly. From there, he suspected it should be possible to do them automatically. He began designing an automatic mechanical calculating machine, which he called a difference engine. In 1822 he had a working model to demonstrate. Financial assistance from the British government was obtained and Babbage began manufacture of a difference engine in 1823. It was intended to be steam-powered and fully automatic, including the printing of the resulting tables, and controlled by a fixed instruction program.

The difference engine, although having limited adaptability and applicability, was really a big step forward. Babbage continued to work there for the next 10 years, but in 1833 he lost interest because he thought he had a better idea; the construction of what would now be called a general-purpose, fully program-controlled automatic mechanical digital computer. Babbage called this idea an analytical engine. The ideas for this design showed a great deal of foresight, although this could not be appreciated until a century later.

The plans for this engine required an identical decimal computer operating on numbers of 50 decimal digits (or words) and having a storage capacity (memory) of 1,000 of these digits. Built-in operations were meant to include everything a modern general-purpose computer would need, even the all-important conditional control forwarding capability that would allow commands to be executed in any order, not just in order in which they were programmed.

As people can see, it took a lot of smarts and guts to come up with the style and use of computers in the 1990s. People have assumed that computers are a natural development in society and hold them for acquired. Just as people have learned to drive an automobile, it also takes skill and learning to use a computer.

Computers in society have become difficult to understand. Their exact nature and the actions they performed depended heavily on the type of computer. To say that a person had a typical computer does not necessarily reduce the capabilities of that computer. The styles and types of computers covered so many different functions and actions that it was difficult to name them all. The original computers of the 1940s were easy to define their purpose when they were invented. They mainly performed mathematical functions several times faster than anyone could have calculated them. However, the evolution of the computer had created many styles and types that depended greatly on a well-defined purpose.

Computers in the 1990s roughly fell into three groups including mainframes, networking units, and personal computers. Mainframe computers were very large modules and had the ability to process and store huge amounts of data in the form of numbers and words. Mainframe computers were the first types of computers developed in the 1940s. Users of these types of computers ranged from banking companies, large corporations, and government agencies. They were usually very expensive, but designed to last at least five to ten years. They also required a well-trained and experienced workforce to operate and maintain. Larry Wulforst, in his book Breakthrough to the Computer Age, describes older mainframe computers of the 1940s versus those of the 1990s by speculating, “…the contrast to the sputtering engine noise powering the Wright brothers’ early flights at Kitty Hawk and the roar of mighty engines on a Cape Canaveral launch pad”. End of the first part.

Mentioned works

Wulforst, Harry. Breakthrough in the computer age. New York: Charles Scribner’s Son, 1982.

Palferman, Jon and Doron Swade. The dream machine. London: BBC Books, 1991.

Campbell-Kelly, Martin and William Aspray. Computer, a history of the information machine. New York: Basic Books, 1996.

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