History of Computers


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History of Computers

One could say that the history of the computer started with the abacus, a wooden frame holding two wires with beads strung on them. The beads were moved around, and the abacus was used to solve arithmetic problems. Blaise Pascal built the first digital computer in 1642, which added numbers that were entered with dials. Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz built a computer in 1694 that could add and multiply (Meyers). Thomas of Colmar (Charles Xavier Thomas) created the first mechanical calculator that added, subtracted, multiplied, and divided (Augarten 37).

During this time, in Cambridge, England, Charles Babbage began designing an automatic mechanical calculating machine, called the difference machine. He started manufacturing it in 1823. It was supposed to be steam powered and fully automatic, capable of printing result tables, and run by an instruction program. He worked on it for the next ten years (Meyers).

Herman Hollerith and James Powers, who worked for the US Census Bureau, were the first to successfully use punch cards in 1890. Information could be punched into the cards automatically, and they developed devices to read the information, so reading errors were reduced, work flow increased, and the punched cards could be used as easily accessible memory. International Business Machines (IBM), Remington, Burroughs, and other corporations developed better punched cards. 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: feed in a specified number of cards automatically, add, multiply, and sort feed out cards with punched results (Meyers). They were slow compared to today computers, only processing 50-220 cards per minute, each card only holding 80 characters. Punched cards were a big advancement in their day, providing greater memory storage. Punched cards performed most of the world first business computing and much scientific computing work (Meyers).

World War II created a great need for the military to have computer capacity; trajectory tables and other information were required for new weapons. John Eckert, John Mauchly, and their associates at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering of University of Pennsylvania built a high-speed electronic computer, the ENIAC (Electrical Numerical Integrator and Calculator) in 19 42.

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ENIAC had a numerical word of 10 decimal digits and could multiply two or three of these numbers at a rate of 300 per second, using a multiplication table stored in its memory. It was about 1,000 times faster than its predecessors. ENIAC took up about 1,800 square feet of floor space and used around 180,000 watts of electrical power. It was inconvenient, but efficient in dealing with the programs for which it had been designed. It is considered the first successful high-speed electronic digital computer and was used from 1946 to 1955 (Augarten 99-131).

John von Neumann made a special type of machine instruction called conditional control transfer, which permitted the program sequence to be stopped and started again at any time and stored all instruction programs in the same memory unit as data, so instructions could be changed the same way data can. This caused computing and programming to become faster and more flexible, as well as more efficient (Meyers).

The first computers to use these improvements were built in 1947. They used Random Access Memory (RAM), memory that gives almost constant access to any piece of information, of 1,000 word capacity and punched card or punched tape devices. Some of them could multiply in 2 to 4 seconds. They were much smaller than ENIAC, about the size of a grand piano. They were used for 8 to 12 years and included EDVAC and UNIVAC (Meyers).

The magnetic core memory and the transistor-circuit element were discovered in the early 1950. They were quickly added to new models of digital computers. By the 1960, RAM capacities increased from 8,000 to 64,000 words. They were expensive to purchase or rent and more expensive to operate because of expanding programming. They were generally found in large computer centers run by industry, government, or private laboratories (Meyers).

The 1960 was a race to develop the fastest computer possible with the largest capacity. The LARC machine, built for the Livermore Radiation Laboratories , University of California, by the Sperry - Rand Corporation had a base memory of 98,000 words. The Stretch computer by IBM had a total capacity around 100,000,000 words but had slower access. Computers at this time included accessories, like consoles, card feeders, page printers, and graphing devices (Meyers).

The 1970 moved away from very powerful, single-purpose computers to cheaper computers with more applications. Many companies, like Apple Computer and Radio Shack, introduced successful PC¦Ðs, personal computers that were small enough and inexpensive enough to be purchased and used by individuals, partially because of the fad in computer and video games. During the 1980¦Ðs, the PC field was crowded, but Apple and IBM were going strong (Meyers). Today, computers continue to improve, getting faster and less expensive.


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