The History of Computers

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The History of Computers

In the year 2003, it is almost impossible for those of us who have been brought up with computer to imagine what the world was like before their coming. People use computers every day in their homes, using the Internet, specifically e-mails and Instant Messenger, to keep in touch with friends and relatives far away. People also use computers every day at work and school, planning projects and writing papers. For many of today’s children, computers are an integral part of their education, and some of them use computers in school every day. These children benefit from the ideas of many people many years ago, those who laid the foundation for today’s modern computer.

An analytical engine first described by Charles Babbage in May 1835 was the first machine to possess the five essential functions of a computer (Hofemeister, 1-7). Even though the engine was never completed, its design included the five basic functions of input, programming, calculation, storage, and output (Hofmeister, 1-7). This machine was an essential part of the evolution of the first computer, but it was certainly not the beginning. In 1642, Blaise Pascal developed the “Pascaline” – a mechanical adding machine, and in 1673 Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz developed a mechanical calculator that could perform more complex functions, such as multiplication and division (Hofmeister, 1-8).

The machines developed by Pascal and von Leibniz, along with the Analytic Engine designed by Babbage, led to the unveiling of Mark I, the first operational electro-mechanical computer, which was designed by Howard Aiken in 1944 (Hofmeister, 1-8). Aiken began work on this machine in 1937, using the principles first conceptualized by Babbage (Hofmeister, 1-10). Most of the Mark I was mechanical, which slowed it down, a problem that was fixed in the Colossus, a computer which “replaced the speed of the mechanical components with the speed of electricity (Hofmeister, 1-10).” This was a major advancement in computer technology. The Colossus Mark II, which was built at around the same time, is believed to have “contained all the elements of a modern computer except an internal program store (Hofmeister, 1-10).

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” It first worked on June 1, 1944, and contained 2,500 vacuum tubes, and was followed in February 1946 by an American computer, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator (ENIAC) (Hofmeister, 1-10). These two machines marked the beginning of the evolution of the modern computer, and “with the addition of Von Neumann’s notion of stored memory and the use of binary notation, the first generation of modern day computers was born (Hofmeister, 1-11).”

After these machines were developed, many improvements and new innovations made the computer what it is today. Alan Hofmeister identifies three generations of computers in his book Microcomputer Applications in the Classroom. He calls the Colossus and the ENIAC the first generation of computers, characterized by their vacuum tubes, their large size, and electricity (Hofmeister, 1-11). When transistors replaced the vacuum tubes inside the computers, the second-generation computers were born, ones that were smaller and more reliable (Hofmeister, 1-13). The third-generation computers are heavily dependent on integrated circuit technology, and made use of silicone as a semiconductor (Hofmeister, 1-13). These third generation computers also moved through several levels of miniaturization (Hofmeister, 1-13). When Hofmeister wrote his book in 1984, he said that a fourth generation of computers appeared imminent, with continuing efforts toward miniaturization, to become available in 1990 (Hofmeister, 1-14). This is obviously many years past, and today’s computers are much smaller and faster than the computers that were around when Hofmeister wrote his book. An average computer today can “execute approximately 100 million instructions per second (HowStuffWorks).” That is much faster than any of the computers that were around in 1984. That’s only computers for personal use. The fastest computer today is NEC's Earth Simulator, which operates at a top-end of 40 teraflops (trillions of operations/second) (HowStuffWorks).

Computers have come a long way over the years. The computers of today are many times faster and more efficient than the early computers. The spread of technology has been rapid, and new technology makes some things easier for people today than they were in the past. For example, writing a paper has become much easier with the new technology, because computers have programs that will type your paper neatly and automatically fix spelling and grammar mistakes. With computer technology changing so rapidly, it is interesting to try to imagine the new technology that will develop in the years to come. The history of the modern computer is interesting to follow, as it developed from such a simple, yet innovative, idea so many years ago.

Works Cited

Hofmeister, Alan. Microcomputer Applications in the Classroom. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston: New York, 1984.

“What is the world’s fastest computer?” HowStuffWorks, Incorporated, 2003. http://www.howstuffworks.com/question54.htm.


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