Computers are such fascinating devices, and today we think, “Where would we be without them?” In this post I’d like to go over the history of computers and discuss where they came from.
This is somewhat of an arguable discussion as many people have different ideas on what the actual first computer was. I suppose it depends on your definition of what a computer is.
To me, a computer to put it simply, is a device made to complete calculations. If you really want to get down to the nitty gritty, using this definition, I suppose the human brain would be the First computer. But I want to talk more about man made devices and how they fit into the history of computers.
I would consider the first man made computer to be the Abacus. The Abacus is a human constructed device used for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. There are no writing utensils required and it is accurate for any base number normally within groupings of ten.
There’s a couple of different renditions of the abacus, one being a board consisting of special markings and is a counter style device. While the other is made up of round beads attached in rows. They are normally held in place either by string or short rods of metal.
The beads slide upward and downward in order to complete calculations by using one set of beads to represent each of tens, hundreds and thousands etc.
How Old is the Abacus?
It is believed, that the abacus was invented as far back as 2400 BC by the Babylonians. But more often it’s origin dates to somewhere around 1000 and 500 BC.
The Chinese also had their hand in this marvelous invention. They invented their version of the abacus as early as 3000 BC.
So now that we’ve covered the almighty abacus, which is thought to be the birth mother to modern computing today. Let’s start early and move forward to more modern inventions.
The History of Mechanical Computers
Some of these I will only touch on briefly simply because there are so many to cover in this one post and I don’t want to bore you with super long explanations. So let’s dive right in.
The Antikythera Mechanism
This device was built in 87 BC and was constructed to calculate the new moons. It’s specially designed gear ratio was 235 to 19 and unfortunately it’s original craftsman is unknown.
Leonardo da Vinci invented a mechanical calculating machine in the year 1500. You can read a little more about his invention Here.
In 1620, Edmund Gunter from England invented a logarithmic calculating device which is widely known as the first successful analog device. An analog computer will perform its calculations in parallel enabling it to multi-task. Essentially doing multiple calculations at the same time.
The Almighty Slide Rule
In 1621 a clergyman and mathematician by the name of William Oughtred invented the slide rule. This device is well known especially by engineers as it is still used today to perform calculations.
The slide rule is also considered an analog computer which has three interlocking strips. These devices are normally constructed of wood, plastic or metal. By placing the strips relative to each other, calculations are able to be made.
Blaise Pascal invented the first mechanical digital calculating device in 1642.
The Difference Engine
What’s often believed to be the most beautiful computer ever built was constructed by Charles Babbage in 1822. His device was focused on improving the accuracy of calculations within the production of arithmetical tables.
Babbage’s amazing machine processed calculations on the principal that it only needs to subtract numbers in order to complete it’s calculations. There is actually a working model of Babbage’s difference engine in the British Museum.
The History of Electronic Computers
Now we’re getting into the more modern approach to computing, the binary code. The binary code is based soley on the digits 0 and 1. Most of you are probably familiar with this principal and every calculation performed by a digital device whether it be calculations, storage, retrieval or instruction is done with binary digits.
1939 marked a new era for computing when physicist John Vincent Atanasoff designed the first electronic digital computer. This machine was a combined effort of Atanasoff and his assistant Clifford Berry and they named their machine the ABC. Of course this stood for Atanasoff-Berry Computer.
The Electric Brain
During the second World War Alan Turing invented this machine to decipher German Enigma machines. It’s well known as the Turing-Welchman Bombe and it was successful in its mission. His efforts on this machine shaved many years off the war in Europe.
Large Scale Computer
In 1944, Howard Aiken from the United States invented the first fully automatic large-scale calculator. His device, known as the Harvard Mark I, consisted of more than 750,000 parts and sounded like a room buzzing full of women knitting sweaters.
The First Programmable Electronic Computer
This device came to life in 1946 and was birthed by J. Presper Eckert and John W. Mauchly. They named their device ENIAC and it contained 20,000 vacuum tubes. Very large scale! ENIAC stands for Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator.
The First Stored Program Computer
EDVAC, the Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer, was developed in the late 40’s. It wasn’t until 1952 that this device was unveiled.
Semiconductors and Integrated Circuits
Robert Noyce of Fairchild Semiconductor and Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments were both involved in the creation of the semiconductor and integrated circuit. Although they were both working on these projects independently, neither were aware of the others efforts.
Kilby patented the marvel in 1958 of which he won the Nobel Prize in the category of Physics in the year 2000. The invention of the semiconductor and integrated circuit is thought to be the most important work of the twentieth century.
Transistors, resistors, capacitors and everything in between are incorporated into a tiny little electronic circuit. Noyce actually moved further to become founder of Intel, which of course were the inventors of the microprocessor.
The Computer Microprocessor
This marked a launch into many modern marvels we know today. The computer microprocessor was invented by a United States engineer, Marcian “Ted” Hoff in 1968. Some people refer to this as a microchip.
The microchip is essentially the brain of a computer and all the thinking parts such as the CPU, memory etc. are all placed within this single chip. Intel took Hoff on board as their 12th employee and marketed his invention in 1971.
So that covers a pretty good history of computers from early history up until modern day. If there are some other inventions or an important era I failed to mention I apologize. But I would love for you to enlighten me in the comments below.
Computers play a huge important role in our lives today and I think it’s important to know this history as much as any other. Thanks for reading and I wish you all happy computing!