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 people\'s lives for the better.

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
"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 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 handled 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,