History of the Computer Industry in America

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 U.S. 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 peoples lives for the better.
The earliest existence of the modern day computer ancestor is the abacus.
These date back to almost 2000 years ago. It is simply a wooden rack holding
parallel wire 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, 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 into 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 punch cards. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 was an enormous step forwards; 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,
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 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