Computers and Society


The decade of the 1980\'s saw an explosion in computer technology and
computer usage that deeply changed society. Today computers are a part of
everyday life, they are in their simplest form a digital watch or more complexly
computers manage power grids, telephone networks, and the money of the world.
Henry Grunwald, former US ambassador to Austria best describes the computer\'s
functions, “It enables the mind to ask questions, find answers, stockpile
knowledge, and devise plans to move mountains, if not worlds.” Society has
embraced the computer and accepted it for its many powers which can be used for
business, education, research, and warfare.
The first mechanical calculator, a system of moving beads called the
abacus, was invented in Babylonia around 500 BC. The abacus provided the fastest
method of calculating until 1642, when the French scientist Pascal invented a
calculator made of wheels and cogs. The concept of the modern computer was
first outlined in 1833 by the British mathematician Charles Babbage. His design
of an analytical engine contained all of the necessary components of a modern
computer: input devices, a memory, a control unit, and output devices. Most of
the actions of the analytical engine were to be done through the use of punched
cards. Even though Babbage worked on the analytical engine for nearly 40 years,
he never actually made a working machine.
In 1889 Herman Hollerith, an American inventor, patented a calculating
machine that counted, collated, and sorted information stored on punched cards.
His machine was first used to help sort statistical information for the 1890
United States census. In 1896 Hollerith founded the Tabulating Machine Company
to produce similar machines. In 1924, the company changed its name to
International Business Machines Corporation. IBM made punch-card office
machinery that dominated business until the late 1960s, when a new generation of
computers made the punch card machines obsolete.
The first fully electronic computer used vacuum tubes, and was so secret
that its existence was not revealed until decades after it was built. Invented
by the English mathematician Alan Turing and in 1943, the Colossus was the
computer that British cryptographers used to break secret German military codes.
The first modern general-purpose electronic computer was ENIAC or the Electronic
Numerical Integrator and Calculator. Designed by two American engineers, John
Mauchly and Presper Eckert, Jr., ENIAC was first used at the University of
Pennsylvania in 1946.
The invention of the transistor in 1948 brought about a revolution in
computer development, vacuum tubes were replaced by small transistors that
generated little heat and functioned perfectly as switches. Another big
breakthrough in computer miniaturization came in 1958, when Jack Kilby designed
the first integrated circuit. It was a wafer that included transistors,
resistors, and capacitors the major components of electronic circuitry. Using
less expensive silicon chips, engineers succeeded in putting more and more
electronic components on each chip. Another revolution in microchip technology
occurred in 1971 when the American engineer Marcian Hoff combined the basic
elements of a computer on one tiny silicon chip, which he called a
microprocessor. This microprocessor the Intel 4004 and the hundreds of
variations that followed are the dedicated computers that operate thousands of
modern products and form the heart of almost every general-purpose electronic
computer.
By the mid-1970s, microchips and microprocessors had reduced the cost of
the thousands of electronic components required in a computer. The first
affordable desktop computer designed specifically for personal use was called
the Altair 8800, first sold in 1974. In 1977 Tandy Corporation became the first
major electronics firm to produce a personal computer. Soon afterward, a
company named Apple Computer, founded by Stephen Wozniak and Steven Jobs, began
producing computers. IBM introduced its Personal Computer, or PC, in 1981, and
as a result of competition from the makers of clones the price of personal
computers fell drastically. Just recently Apple Computer allowed its computers
to be cloned by competitors.
During this long time of computer evolution, business has grasped at the
computer, hoping to use it to increase productivity and minimize costs. The
computer has been put on assembly lines, controlling robots. In offices
computers have popped up everywhere, sending information and allowing numbers to
easily be processed. Two key words that apply today are downsizing and
productivity. Companies hope the increase worker productivity, meaning less
working which then allows for downsizing. The computer is supposed to be the
magic wand that will make productivity shoot through the roof, but in some cases
the computer was a waste of time and money.
Reliance Insurance is an example of computer technology falling flat on
its face, wasting a great deal of money, while producing little or no results. “
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