The Computer Evolution

The Computer Evolution

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The Computer Evolution

"Who controls the past commands the future. Who commands the future conquers the past."
-George Orwell

The computer evolution has been an amazing one. There have been astonishing achievements in the computer industry, which dates back almost 2000 years. The earliest existence of the computer dates back to the first century, but the electronic computer has only been around for over a half-century. Throughout the last 40 years computers have changed drastically. They have greatly impacted the American lifestyle. A computer can be found in nearly every business and one out of every two households (Hall, 156). Our Society relies critically on computers for almost all of their daily operations and processes. Only once in a lifetime will a new invention like the computer come about.

The fist computer, known as the abacus, was made of wood and parallel wires on which beads were strung. Arithmetic operations were performed when the beads were moved along the wire according to “programming” rules that had to be memorized by the user (Soma, 14). The second earliest computer, invented by Blaise Pascal in 1694, was a “digital calculating machine.” Pascal designed this first known digital computer to help his father, who was a tax collector. Pascal’s computer could only add numbers, and they had to be entered by turning dials (Soma, 32). It required a manual process like its ancestor, the abacus. Automation was introduced in the early 1800’s by a mathematics professor named Charles Babbage. He created an automatic calculation machine that was steam powered and stored up to 1000 50-digit numbers. Unlike its two earliest ancestors, Babbage’s invention was able to perform various operations. It relied on cards with holes punched in them, which are called “punch cards.” These cards carried out the programming and storing operations for the machine. Unluckily, Babbage’s creation flopped due to the lack of mechanical precision and the lack of demand for the product (Soma, 46). The machine could not operate efficiently because technology was t adequate to make the machine operate efficiently Computer interest dwindled for many years, and it wasn’t until the mid-1800’s that people became interested in them once again.

Between 1850 and 1900, the mathematics and physics fields began advancing. The advancements involved extremely arduous calculations and formulas that took a great deal of time when done manually.

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In need of help, professionals were turning to the computer industry for assistance. The first major use for a computer in the U.S. was for the 1890 cenus ( The U.S. population was increasing so rapidly that officials had to find another way to calculate the numbers. With the combined expertise of Herman Hollerith and James Powers, a new punched-card system was designed that could automatically read information on cards without human involvement ( The computer helped the census bureau tremendously with tabulating the ever-growing U.S. population. The increasing need for computers was obvious, and commercial industries began recruiting experts to design machines that would facilitate similar operations. And, because the punch-cards worked so well at providing extensive means of input, output, and memory storage, they were continuously used for over 50 years. Then, around the 1930’s, engineers began improving them. The newly improved punch-card-business-machine systems were introduced in the late 1930’s. International Business Machines (IBM), and Remington-Rand were some of the larger corporations to develop these new, improved systems. Howard Hathaway Aiken, along with several IBM engineers constructed the Harvard Mark I. This was a huge automatic-digital computer based on standard electromechanical IBM parts (Chopsky, 103). Their invention was extremely advantageous to the computer industry because it had unique built-in programs that handled logarithms and trigonometric functions. Its controls were prepunched paper tape with output from cardpunch and electric typewriters. The system was fully automatic and capable of performing lengthy computations.

Unfortunately, the computer was slow and required approximately 3 to 5 seconds for multiplication computations (Chposky, 103). Regardless though, they did operate automatically and required no human intervention, which was still a major advantage to those who needed them. Then came ENIAC—“Electrical Numerical Integrator and Calculator.”
It was the beginning of World War II, and the government was in desperate need for a system that could accommodate trajectory tables and other essential military data. Luckily for government, John P. Eckert, John W. Mauchley, and several associates at the University of Pennsylvania developed the computer known as ENIAC. ENIAC could multiply two numbers at the rate of 300 products per second, by finding the value of each product from a multiplication table stored in its memory. It operated with punched-card input and output. ENIAC performed tasks 1,000 times faster than its late relatives, used 18,000 standard vacuum tubes, occupied 1,800 square feet of floor space, and used about 180,000 watts of electricity. This was another major accomplishment for the computer industry. However, ENIAC was not easy to program. While it did efficiently handle the particular operations it was set up to do, it had to be re-wired to perform all other tasks. ENIAC was used in numerous applications from 1946 to 1955. It soon became known as the first effective high-speed electronic digital computer. That was forty-five years ago. Today’s estimated cost for the ENIAC is $3,000,000 (

Another computer era began in 1947 with the appearance of modern programmed electronic computers. These computers used the “stored-program technique” that was developed by John Von Neumann. Von Neumann demonstrated that, with proper program controls, a computer could have a very simple setup but yet perform and execute all kinds or computations effectively. The stored-program technique became essential for new and developing systems (Hall, 73). These computers used random access memory (RAM), which is memory that allows continuous access to information. These machines also had punched-card or punched-tape input and output devices and RAMs of 1000-word capacity (Chposky, 127). The EDVAC and UNIVAC are two of the machines included in this category. They were the first commercially offered computers. The UNIVAC was developed by John Eckert, Jr. and John W. Mauchley in the 1950’s. In the 1940’s Eckert and Mauchley formed the first computer company named Mauchley-Eckert Computer Corporation. They later fell upon hard financial times and eventually sold their company to the Remington-Rand Corporation. At the time, Remington-Rand was in the process of upgrading and designing new products. This was a great opportunity for them. They had just increased their staff and invested in the latest R&D facilities. They introduced their new product in the first quarter of 1953. The new computer was named the UNIVAC 120. Over one thousand units were produced before being replaced by the UNIVAC 1004, the last plugboard computer produced by the UNIVAC Division of the SperryRand Corporation.

These new systems were much smaller than their brother, ENIAC, but they still required a great deal of maintenance, and they were programmed directly in machine language. Around 1955, programming had progressed and an advanced programming was being used. The latest trend was transistors, which were discovered by engineers during the early 1950’s. Transistors were great! They were smaller, less expensive, more reliable, and had a faster performance rate than the vacuum tubes. In 1959, a physicist at the Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation by the name of Robert Noyce invented the integrated circuit. This newly found technology was a major turning point for the computer industry. The integrated circuit was a tiny chip of silicon consisting of a complete electronic circuit. Noyce’s discovery was paramount to the computer industry. It did away with the large, bulky computer systems of the past, and introduced smaller, more compact systems that had much more to offer—increased memory capacities, speeds and capabilities. However, the new designs were very expensive and required extensive maintenance. These computers were usually only found in large computer centers that were operated by either: the government, industry, or private laboratories. The reason for this is that only highly skilled programmers could perform the complex operations that were being run on these computers, and the smaller organizations could not afford to hire the experts needed to keep them running.

By 1960, the race was on to see which company could build the fastest computer with the greatest capacity. The challenge soon ended with Sperry-Rand Corporation’s introduction of the LARC machine, and IBM’s completion of the Stretch. The LARC was developed for Livermore Radiation Labs. It consisted of 98,000 word-memory and 10-micro-second multiplication ability. The Stretch on the other hand, boosted 100-million-word memory storage, and its fastest processing time was less than 1-micro-second (Chposky, 147). Between 1963 and 1972, there were many other notable accomplishments in the computer field. The discovery of transistors opened various opportunities for industry Research and Development. The era produced integrated circuits (IC’s), semi-conductor memories instead of magnetic cores, microprogramming and eventually—pipelining, parallel processing and operating systems. Engineers were taking advantage of the new application languages and finding them to be very useful tools for programming instructions and controls.

IC’s became the very popular. They were gradually introduced to the market. The first version was the small-scale integration (SSI), which had approximately 10 devices per circuit or (chip). Then came the medium-scale integration (MSI) that had a maximum of 100 devices per chip. Soon after the multi-layered printed circuit appeared. This design introduced semiconductor memories and did away with the core memories of the previous integrations. Photo-printing then became the new wave. It eliminated wiring, which allowed resistors and capacitors to be built into the circuitry by photographic means. By 1970, very large scale integrations (VLSI) were developed. VLSI’s contained hundreds of thousands of transistors on a single chip. For simple systems, the entire computer processor, main memory and I/O controls were able to fit on one chip.

By the mid-1970’s, companies were introducing programmable microcomputers supplied with software packages. Engineers began using parallelism tools by using multiple functional units, overlapping operations, and pipelining. These applications were promoting astonishing accomplishments for computer computation power. In 1964, Seymour Cray announced his completion of the CDC 6600, which was the first architectural structure to use functional parallelism ( Seymour’s system was by far a quantum leap to the industry. Its computation rate was that of 1 million floating-point operations per second (1 MFLOP). Five years later, the CDC 7600 made its debut. This unit, also designed by Seymour Cray, processed at 10 MFLOP’s per second and offered pipelined functional units. This machine is considered the first vector processor. Then came IBM’s 360/91, which was compatible to the CDC 660, except that it processed data twice as fast. It also offered pipelined instruction stream and separate floating point and integer functional units. IBM’s next design was the 360/195, which derived its processing ability from a very fast cache memory. Then came the first two parallel computers—the SOLOMON, developed by Westinghouse Corp., and the ILLIAC IV. , developed by Burroughs, the Dept. of Defense and the University of Ill.

The introduction of the microcomputers and workstations were great alternatives to the time-sharing mainframe computers that companies were using. One of the fist personal computes to be revealed was the Altair 8800. Developed by Popular Electronic Magazine and brought to the market place in 1975. The unit cost about $380 and did not include a keyboard or monitor. It was typically for those who were electronically inclined because it lacked an operating system and software. Most of those who did purchase the system took full advantage of their technical insight and eventually began opening their own computer businesses. Two such individuals were Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the founders of Apple Computer. They started their business after constructing a cheaper, but more efficient edition of the Altair 8800. Their invention was the Apple II. They also produced an Apple I, which was created in Wozniak’s garage and didn’t receive as much publicity as their later creation.

In 1975, IBM debuted their Model 60, a personal computer that had all the amenities except for an operating system. The demand for software was increasing, and a company by the name of Microsoft saw the opportunity to satisfy that demand. They soon met with IBM’s management and officially signed a contract that made them IBM’s sole software provider. This was a vital step towards Microsoft’s success mainly because IBM had set the industries standards for more than a half-century. This meant that all other software companies had to produce software that was compatible with Microsoft’s. This was a big blow to Apple Computer. They ended up designing their own software, which to this day is one of the best out there.

Microsoft took hold of the market, and soon developed a Disk Operating System (MS-DOS) for IBM’s machines. PC’s began popping up everywhere. All types of businesses, organizations and people were purchasing these great inventions. Computers have greatly affected the way people work and play. They’re used for so many different reasons. For instance, they’re great for researching, accounting, record keeping, communicating, storing data, and even entertainment. While the accomplishments have been major ones, developers are still working feverishly at improving current systems. Many software companies, like Intel, are working on the latest applications for highly technical government operations. The military is one organization that will always require the latest technology, and they have no problem investing in companies like Microsoft or Intel. The federal commitment to high performance computing is very apparent. It wasn’t too long ago that they passed two major pieces of legislation: The High Performance Computing Act, which established the High Performance Computing and Communication Program (HPCCP) and the Information Structure and Technology Act, which addresses several issues ranging from high performance computing to expanded network access and the necessity of technology in schools.

While transitions throughout the computer evolution are sometimes hard to define, many have been very apparent. The transitions from manual to automatic, and from vacuum tubes to transistors are very clear. However, many of the latest developments have been much more gradual and are harder to point out. Some changes worth noting deal with the use of parallel computing. There has been lots of competition between parallel systems and vector processors, with parallels having the upper had. Nonetheless, corporations, such as FUJITSU, are designing systems with large quantity high-end vector processors. The recently introduced a processor with 200 high-end vectors. Other developments include teraflops (1012 arithmetic operations per second) obtained by systems with a thousand processors or more in them. Workstations have also drastically improved. Their processors are designed now with a combination of RICS, pipelining, and parallel processing. They sell for approximately $30,000 and have the same overall computing power (100 Megaflops) as fourth generation supercomputers.

The technical advancements achieved among the computer industry have drastically changed many lifestyles. Every day people can now easily purchase and use computers. Computers are practically everywhere. Society depends on computers everyday, and thanks to the computer evolution, day-to-day task are becoming easier and less time consuming. Students no longer have to go to the library to research for a paper; they have extensive information available to them right at home with the click of a button. Technology and its advancements have assisted us in so many fields: medicine, education, military, business and even entertainment. To think back to the first computer created over 2000 years ago, and realize how it has shaped our lives is an astonishing accomplishment. Americans rely so critically on computers for almost everything. There are many electronic devices related to the computer that we use each day, and we never think about how they work. Thank goodness for all of those so called “computer geeks,” if it weren’t for them, I may not have been able to email this paper to my professor. Only once in a lifetime will such a remarkable discovery take place.

Works Cited

Chposky, James. Blue Magic (NY: Facts on File Publishing, 1988)

Hall, Peter. Silicon Landscapes (Boston: Allen & Irwin, 1985)

Soma, John T. The History of the Computer (Toronto: Lexington Books, 1976) An Overview Of Computational Science (Copyright (C) 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995 by the Computational Science Education Project.) Episode V -- The World At Your Fingertips (Lastupdated99/09/08© J. A. N. Lee, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998.)
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