History of Computers


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History of Computers

When you think about the origins of the electronic digital computer, what scientists’ names come to mind? Many historians give the credit to the American scientists J. Presper Eckert and John W. Mauchy. They built their Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) during World War II. These two scientists founded the first private computer systems company. Although most people recognize Eckert and Mauchy as the persons accountable for the computer industry, historians are beginning to recognize a more unfamiliar history of the computer, its roots in the military establishment. (Meyers)

The birth of the abacus was the beginning of computer history. The abacus is a wooden rack that holds two horizontal wires with beads strung on them. Moving the beads on the abacus can solve regular arithmetic problems. Thomas of Colmar developed the desktop calculator. While great advances were made in mathematical physics between 1850 and 1900, mechanical engineering and science began to make important advances in several areas by the time WWI broke out in 1939.

The Navy was particularly interested in the development of advanced technology beginning in World War I. “Important advances in naval warfare, including the use of mechanical directors and computers for fire control, the use of radio for communication across great distances, and the development of the attack submarine posed new technical problems for strategists.” (Flamm) A consulting board was set up in order to screen the proposals of outside inventors. The board also set up a laboratory to work on the problems of antisubmarine warfare, and eventually the Naval Research Laboratory was then established in 1923. The development of RADAR, radio communications, and the interception of encrypted enemy communications traffic were all supported by the Navy’s postwar research efforts. “Because signals transmitted by radio could be intercepted much more easily than communications over land lines, cryptanalysis became an economic means of acquiring intelligence about the intentions of foreign, especially naval, military forces.” (Flamm)

During the 1930s, the Navy supported substantial work on servomechanisms at MIT. The analog computers were developed after Navy officers enrolled as graduate students in MIT’s Servomechanism Laboratory.

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During the war, these analog computers were applied to solve fire control problems at MIT, RCA and the Bell Telephone Laboratories. The Washington cryptological unit was OP-20-G’s most important technology-related group. This group was also known as Communications Supplementary Activities Washington (CSAW). Joseph Desch and Robert Mumma, along with their electronics lab at NCR, were put to work on secret Navy tasks instead of their usual Army war projects. NCML (the lab in which these people worked) increased from 20 to 1,100 people at its peak. “About 1,200 code breaking machines, of about 140 different types, are reported to have been built at the NCR Dayton plant during the war.” (Flamm)

After all of the work the Navy did on these projects, they worked on external digital computer projects during the war. The Mark I was designed by Howard Aiken and used mechanical relays as its core technology. “Begun under the financial sponsorship of IBM before the war, the Mark I was taken over by the Navy after hostilities were under way.” (Flamm) The Airplane Stability and Control Analyzer turned into the Whirlwind computer project. The Navy once again supported this project. “Both the Mark I and the Whirlwind development groups helped pave the wave for the technical development of the U.S. computer industry.” (Flamm) An Office of Naval Research (ONR) was established in 1946; this was to oversee the task of research management. “By the end of 1948, the ONR employed one thousand in-house scientists, funded about 40 percent of basic research in the United States, and was working on research contracts amounting to 43 million dollars.” (Flamm) Between the years of 1946 and 1950 the ONR funded many computer projects including: MIT’s Whirlwind, Raytheon’s Hurricane computer, the CALDIC computer, and the Harvard Mark III. (Flamm)

After the war ended other developments in computing machinery were being made more regularly. Most people identify the ENIAC, built by Eckert and Mauchly, as the first electronic digital computer; although the Colossus was “completed in great secrecy two years earlier in England”, and “contained circuitry functionally equivalent to that found in ENIAC”. (Flamm)

As you can see, the military supported many successful projects. The first commercial computers were actually altered copies of the machines developed for military users. I believe that the roots of the computer are in the military establishment, and I ask that you acknowledge their role, along with other scientists’, in the history of computers.


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