A short history of the computer

The Analytical Engine “might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations... Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”
-- Ada Byron, commenting in 1843 on the calculating machine designed by Charles Babbage

The first general purpose electronic computer appeared more than half a century ago.

The Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer (ENIAC), which contained 17,468 vacuum tubes, required 1,800 square feet to rest its bulk, and cost three quarters of a million dollars, was the culmination of centuries of advances in computational devices, mathematics and electronics.

ENIAC, which was officially dedicated in February, 1946, counts among its oldest computational predecessors the abacus, punch card loom, and slide rule. Charles Babbage invented the Difference Engine in 1839, a large computational machine that frequently broke down. Babbage never got to build his more advanced Analytical Engine, which included several additional features of modern computers: an input device, a storage ability, a processor, a control unit, and an output device. Babbage also corresponded with Ada Byron, a mathematician who imagined that computers could be used for more than just arithmetic.

ENIAC’s more immediate precursors were the Z3, built in 1941 by Konrad Zuse in Germany, the Atanasoff-Berry Computer (ABC), completed in 1942 by John Atanasoff and Clifford Berry, the Colossus, a code-breaking device developed as part of the British war effort, and the Harvard MARK I, built in 1944 by a team led by Howard Aiken. ENIAC, developed by John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert at the University of Pennsylvania, combined key attributes of each of these devices and was the first fully operational, general purpose, programmable, electronic, digital computer.

But ENIAC had little in common with the computers of today. It had no mass storage or random access memory, and input and output were accomplished using punch cards. ENIAC did not even store its program electronically. Technicians programmed the computer manually by plugging and unplugging cables. ENIAC was extraordinarily slow by today’s standards. The computer took 2.4 hundredths of a second to perform a single divide operation. Today’s home computers are many thousands of times more powerful.

Computers evolved rapidly after ENIAC. A prototype electronic, stored-program computer was developed at the University of Manchester in England in 1948. A year later a fully operational stored-program computer, the Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Computer (EDSAC), was completed at Cambridge University. In 1950 MIT researchers built Whirlwind, a computer that programmers could interact with in real time. The computer industry was launched in 1951 with the sale of the first UNIVAC I, built by the ENIAC team.

Though desktop computers didn’t emerge until the late 1970s and graphics workstations weren’t widely used until the mid-’80s, several of their key technologies were developed much earlier. The integrated circuit, key to mass-produced computers, was unveiled in 1959. The first graphics program, Sketchpad, was developed by Ivan Sutherland at MIT in 1962. The first computer game, Spacewar!, also emerged at MIT around the same time. The first commercially available video display terminal was shipped in 1963. The mouse was developed in 1964 and the multiple window interface was developed in 1970. Even the first virtual reality head-mounted display was developed by Sutherland back in 1968.

More than a decade later the Apple II became the first widely-sold personal computer, followed shortly by the IBM PC.

As the rapidly growing Internet and ever-shrinking electronic components give computers entree to still more areas of our lives, development won’t slow down any time soon. Maybe by the hundredth anniversary of ENIAC in 2046, computers will be so advanced they’ll stop losing files. -TECHNOLOGY RESEARCH NEWS

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