History of Computers

Only once in a lifetime will a new invention come about to touch every
aspect of our lives. Such a device that changes the way we work, live,
and play is a special one, indeed. A machine that has done all
this and more now exists in nearly every business in the US and one out of
every two households (Hall, 156). This incredible invention is the
computer. The electronic computer has been around for over a
half-century, but its ancestors have been around for 2000 years. However,
only in the last 40 years has it changed the American society. From the
first wooden abacus to the latest high-speed microprocessor,
the computer has changed nearly every aspect of people’s lives for the
The very earliest existence of the modern day computer’s ancestor
is the abacus. These date back to almost 2000 years ago. It is simply a
wooden rack holding parallel wires on which beads are
strung. When these beads are moved along the wire according to
"programming" rules that the user must memorize, all ordinary arithmetic
operations can be performed (Soma, 14). The next innovation in
computers took place in 1694 when Blaise Pascal invented the first
“digital calculating machine”. It could only add numbers and they had to
be entered by turning dials. It was designed to help Pascal’s father who
was a tax collector (Soma, 32).
In the early 1800’s, a mathematics professor named Charles Babbage
designed an automatic calculation machine. It was steam powered and could
store up to 1000 50-digit numbers. Built in to his machine were
operations that included everything a modern general-purpose computer
would need. It was programmed by--and stored data on--cards with holes
punched in them, appropriately called “punchcards”. His inventions were
failures for the most part because of the lack of precision machining
techniques used at the time and the lack of demand for such a device
(Soma, 46).
After Babbage, people began to lose interest in computers.
However, between 1850 and 1900 there were great advances in mathematics
and physics that began to rekindle the interest (Osborne, 45). Many of
these new advances involved complex calculations and formulas that were
very time consuming for human calculation. The first major use for a
computer in the US was during the 1890 census. Two men, Herman Hollerith
and James Powers, developed a new punched-card system that could
automatically read information on cards without human intervention
(Gulliver, 82). Since the population of the US was increasing so fast,
the computer was an essential tool in tabulating the totals.
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 punched-card machines were
slow, typically processing from 50 to 250 cards per minute, with each card
holding up to 80 digits. At the 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 (Chposky, 73).
By the late 1930s 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 perform all
four arithmetic operations. Also, it had special built-in programs to
handle logarithms and trigonometric functions. The Mark I was controlled
from prepunched paper tape. Output was by card punch and electric
typewriter. It was slow, requiring 3 to 5 seconds for a multiplication,
but it was fully automatic and could complete long computations without
human intervention (Chposky, 103).
The outbreak of World War II produced a desperate need for
computing capability, especially for the military. New weapons systems
were produced which needed trajectory tables and other essential data.
In 1942, John P. Eckert, John W. Mauchley, and their associates at the
University of Pennsylvania decided to build a high-speed electronic
computer to do the job. This machine became known as ENIAC, for
"Electrical Numerical Integrator And Calculator". It 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. ENIAC was
thus about 1,000 times faster than the previous generation of computers
(Dolotta, 47).
ENIAC used 18,000 standard vacuum tubes, occupied 1800 square feet
of floor space, and used about 180,000 watts of