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History of Computers

Different devices and tools have been employed in calculation and processing of data. An ancient calculating device is the abacus, a mechanical calculating device first used around 2500 B.C. to add and subtract. Scientists and mathematicians later sought other means to a id their endeavors. John Napier, a Scottish mathematician, developed (about 1610) a series of rods made of bones (commonly called Napier's bones) that could be arranged to produce the products of selected numbers. He used these rods to produce the first table of logarithms. In 1865 the French mathematician Blasé Pascal improved on this concept and produced a mechanical calculator called Pascaline. It was more compact and easier to use than Napier's bones. The Pascaline was capable of performing addition and subtraction. All attempts to produce a calculator capable of performing all the four arithmetic operations and producing mathematical tables quickly and accurately were not successful until 1820. Thomas de Colmar of France produced the arithmometer, the first four-function practical mechanical calculator.

A young English mathematician named Charles Babbage, of Cambridge University contributed substantially towards the development of computers. Babbage gave much thought to the design of a device to produce mathematical and navigational tables and came upon a principle that used the “differences” between previous values in a table to produce new values. Babbage was able to construct a working model to illustrate the principle of the difference engine. Babbage started work on a steam- driven version of the difference engine capable of calculating and printing results at a rate of two twenty-digit numbers per minute.

Babbage built part of the machine but abandoned it in favor of a more powerful and versatile machine, the analytical engine. The analytical engine was designed to use punched cards to provide a constant flow of information through the machine's elaborate series of columns, gears, wheels, and levers. The analytical engine included all the functional units of modern computers: input of data, arithmetic unit for computation, memory for data and instructions, and display for output. This was an ambitious project during a time when electronics, transistors, and chips did not exist. The engine was a puzzle to all but a few mathematicians. This machine, however, was never built. Nearly a century later a new generation of scientists and engineers equipped with new developments brought Babbage's vision back into focus for future advancements in computer technology.

Insignificant progress took place over the next decades. In the United States the 1890 census was approaching, and there was no foreseeable way that it could be completed by 1900, as required by the constitution. Herman Hollerith, an employee of the Census Office in Washington, started to develop an automated device to complete this task in the allotted ten years. The result was Hollerith's tabulator. A manual card puncher, a card reader, and an electromechanical card sorter were the main components of the census tabulator.

With this tabulator, Hollerith was able to complete the census count in only two years. Hollerith's success paved the way for further research and development. Analog computers, a new class of computing devices, emerged. These devices used electrical voltages to represent physic al quantities. They functioned by establishing an analogy between a physical quantity and a voltage level. They were very fast but not sufficiently exact, or dependable.

The first electronic computers, the ABC (Atanasoff Berry Computer) and the ENIAC (Electronic Numerator, Integrator, Analyzer, and Computer) were built in the early 1940s. The ABC, built by Atanasoff and Berry, was the first, electronic computer using vacuum tubes. The ENIAC, built by Eckert and Mauchly, was an extensively used special- purpose computer. In 1949, at Cambridge, the first general-purpose electronic computer operating under the control of a stored program, the EDSAC (Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Computer), was completed. A stored program is a set of instructions stored in memory that guides the computer, step by step, through a process.

John Von Neumann, an originator of the stored-program concept, developed the IAS (Institute for Advanced Study) computer at Princeton University. This machine was the realization of John Von Neumann, ideas on computer design. Most computers built after the IAS computers have “Von Neumann” characteristics.

A group of MIT scientists headed by Ken Olsen developed the Whirlwind computer, more than twenty times faster than the ENIAC. Both the IAS and Whirlwind computers introduced computational innovations of astronomical proportions.

Computers were not available commercially until early 1951. In 1951, the Sperry Rand Corporation built the UNIVAC I (Universal Automatic Computer). The UNIVAC I built for the Bureau of Census of the United States was the first commercially available computer. The first c omputer installation to handle business applications was set up in 1954 at Louisville, Kentucky in the USA. The UNIVAC I is now on display in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.

Day by day computers were becoming smaller, faster, and more powerful and they were being applied to more and varied tasks. In 1956, MIT in the USA introduced its compact TX-0 transistorized computer system. A few years later, in 1960, the first integrated circuit was produced by Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments and the DEC PDP-1 was being used with the first video game, “Space War”. In the Mid-1960s, minicomputers began appearing as did a forerunner of today’s supercomputers, the CDC 6600, designed by Seymour Cray.


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