Beginning of The Computer Age



It seems at least once in a lifetime a new invention will come about and touch every aspect of our lives. One such device is the computer, which is at this time affecting almost every business in the U.S., and one out of every two households. The computers widespread use has made changes in the ways that we work, live, play, commute, and even the way that we learn. Although the modern electronic computer is only about 50 years old, previous ideas related to it date back close to 2000 years ago. From the first wooden abacus to the latest high-speed microprocessor, the computer has changed the lives of millions of people for the better.

The very first ancestor to the modern day computer was the abacus. Invented by the Chinese, the abacus can date back as far as 2000 years. Simply made out of a wooden rack holding wires that contained the beads that were used to calculate large numbers. When the beads were moved along the wire according to the “programming” rules that the user had to memorize, any of the simplest forms of math can be performed. The next step toward computers was in 1694 when Blaise Pascal invented the very first digital calculation machine. All it was capable of was adding and subtracting, but unlike any invention before it, this one would automatically carry out the problem of adding a number that changed the next numerical digit. Pascal fixed this through a series of dials that when they reached ten, would go back to zero and add one to the next column. Thus producing a machine that would help his father, a tax collector, to do his job in a more efficient way.

In the early 1800’s, a mathematics professor named Charles Babbage designed an automatic calculation machine. Powered by steam, it could store nearly 1000 fifty digit numbers. With this machine one could do any of the modern day, general purpose, computer calculations. This was possible because of the use of a punch card system that he himself had invented in order to store data, and to program the machine to do other calculations. Although England stopped funding him, allowing the invention to be “put in the closet” for some years, Babbage is still considered one of the fathers of the computer age. After Babbage’s attempt at creating the first computer had failed, people began to think less of the idea until they realized that the mathematics of the time called for an easier way of calculating equations. This happened due to the great advances in mathematics and physics between 1850 and 1900. One such calculation that was near impossible to do by the measure of hand alone was the census of the American people in 1890. This caused two men, Herman Hollerith and James Powers to revert to an invention that resembled that of Babbage. These two men used a machine that relied on a new punch card system that would read the cards automatically without human intervention. Because of the skyrocketing population in the U.S., the computer was an essential tool in tabulating numerical values. These advantages were noted by commercial industries and soon led to the development of improved punch card business-machine systems by International Business Machines (IBM), Remington-Rand, Burroughs, and other corporations. By modern standards the punch card systems were extremely slow, typically processing from 50-250 cards per minutes, with each card only holding up to 80 digits. At that time, however, punched cards were an enormous step forward; they provided a means of input, output, and memory storage on a massive scale. For more than 50 years following their first use, punched card machines did the bulk of the World’s business computing, and a good portion of the computing work in science.

By the late 1930’s punched card machine techniques had become so well established and reliable that Howard Hathaway Aiken, in collaboration with engineers at IBM, undertook construction of a large automatic digital computer based on standard IBM electromechanical parts. Aiken’s machine, called the Harvard Mark I, handled 23-digit numbers and could all four arithmetic operations. Also, it had special built-in programs to handle logarithms and trigonometric functions. The Mark I was controlled from pre-punched paper tape. Output