The History of Computers

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The History of Computers

The idea of a machine that would make man’s calculations easier, faster, and more accurate is no new notion. The Abacus, “Napier’s rods”, the “Calculating Clock”, and the “Stepped Reckoner” are a few examples of early computer ideas In the more recent history of the computer, we can see how computers have morphed (or dwarfed) from clunky, million-dollar machines into the compact and convenient parts of our everyday lives (Computer Science Student Resource Website, 2003, “Evolution of Computers: From Stone to Silicon”, Section 1).

The Academic Press Dictionary of Science and Technology informs us that John von Neumann’s name is most well-known among the potential “founders” of the first computer, but to whom the credit belongs can be debated…von Neumann wrote a memorandum explaining the ENIAC, and thus his name is recorded (Academic Press, 2002, Section 2, “Historical Perspective”). The ENIAC (the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator) was developed by J. Preper Eckert and John Mauchly of the Moore School of the University of Pennsylvania in the mid-1940s. The credit for this “invention” is “shady” because Mauchly reportedly visited John Atanasoff before building the ENIAC. Atanasoff and his graduate student Berry built the Atanasoff/Berry Computer in the early 1940s at Iowa State University. At any rate, von Neumann’s name is the most well-known and thus settles the issue!

The model von Neumann came up with for the basic computer structure is still today, with modifications for speed and size, the foundation for many computers (Academic Press, 2002, Section 1, p. 527). The Academic Press Dictionary states that von Neumann’s report was so well-received because it had incredible “focus on the logical principles and organization of the computer rather than on the electrical and electronic technology required for its implementation” (p. 527).

As “Evolution: From Stone to Silicon” reports, the first computers were mechanical and used vacuum tubes. These tubes needed to be replaced constantly (Computer Science Student Resource Website, 2003, Section 3). The EDVAC (Electronic Discrete Variable Computer) invented in 1952 used magnetic tape, a revolution from the mess of wires that needed to be moved and replaced to run new programs.

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The Eckert-Mauchly Corporation manufactured the UNIVAC in 1951, the first electronic computer that could be used for text and numbers.

What a miraculous invention was the point-contact transistor, invented December 3rd, 1947 (Computer History Museum, 2003, Timeline of Computer History). This replaced the vacuum tubes and started the “second-generation” computer wave. Transistors were faster, cheaper, and required less energy. The first computer to use transistors was the TX-0, built in 1956 by MIT researchers. This computer was also general-purpose (text and numbers—oh boy!) (Computer History Museum, 2003, Timeline of Computer History).

Before third-generation computers (1960s-1970s) came along, one other significant mark of progress was made, high-level programming languages, such as FORTRAN, which replaced machine-level assembly languages. IBM developed the first operational high-level programming language in the mid-1950s, which is still used today. (Computer Science Student Resource Website, 2003, Section 4).

The microchip invented in 1959 sparked the next generation of computers. One of these computers developed by IBM was a sort of peacemaker in the computer world. The computers being developed in this era were program-incompatible with one another. IBM invented the System/360, which helped accomplish software compatibility, and provided the basis for the mainframe computers developed after it (Computer Science Student Resource Website, 2003, Section 6).

The next computer eras were the Very Large Scale Integration (VLSI) and Personal Computer (PC) era. The VLSI era brought us to a place where tons of information can be stored on one microchip. Though MITS Inc. marketed the first computer designed for individual use, the “standard frame” for PCs was developed by IBM in 1981 and was made available to the computer industry (Computer Science Student Resource Website, 2003, Section 6).

This information is new and fascinating to me. When computers can read thoughts, I can envision a future where computers will enable you to know what a disabled person wants to say. Welcome.

Works Cited

Academic Press Dictionary of Science and Technology. (2002). San Diego: ACADEMIC PRESS.

Computer History Museum (2003). Timeline of Computer History [Electronic Version]. Retrieved September 15, 2003, from http://www.computerhistory.org/timeline/timeline.php?timeline_category=cmptr

Computer Science Student Resource Website (2003). History of Computers. Evolution of Computers: From Stone to Silicon [Electronic Version]. Retrieved September 15, 2003, from http://cs.swau.edu/~durkin/articles/history_computing.html


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