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Essay/Term paper: History of computers

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Information Technology

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History of Computers

ENG 121

The volume and use of computers in the world are so great, they have
become difficult to ignore anymore. Computers appear to us in so many ways that
many times, we fail to see them as they actually are. People associated with a
computer when they purchased their morning coffee at the vending machine. As
they drove themselves to work, the traffic lights that so often hampered us are
controlled by computers in an attempt to speed the journey. Accept it or not,
the computer has invaded our life.

The origins and roots of computers started out as many other inventions
and technologies have in the past. They evolved from a relatively simple idea or
plan designed to help perform functions easier and quicker. The first basic type
of computers were designed to do just that; compute!. They performed basic math
functions such as multiplication and division and displayed the results in a
variety of methods. Some computers displayed results in a binary representation
of electronic lamps. Binary denotes using only ones and zeros thus, lit lamps
represented ones and unlit lamps represented zeros. The irony of this is that
people needed to perform another mathematical function to translate binary to
decimal to make it readable to the user.

One of the first computers was called ENIAC. It was a huge, monstrous
size nearly that of a standard railroad car. It contained electronic tubes,
heavy gauge wiring, angle-iron, and knife switches just to name a few of the
components. It has become difficult to believe that computers have evolved into
suitcase sized micro-computers of the 1990's.

Computers eventually evolved into less archaic looking devices near the
end of the 1960's. Their size had been reduced to that of a small automobile and
they were processing segments of information at faster rates than older models.
Most computers at this time were termed "mainframes" due to the fact that many
computers were linked together to perform a given function. The primary user of
these types of computers were military agencies and large corporations such as
Bell, AT&T, General Electric, and Boeing. Organizations such as these had the
funds to afford such technologies. However, operation of these computers
required extensive intelligence and manpower resources. The average person could
not have fathomed trying to operate and use these million dollar processors.

The United States was attributed the title of pioneering the computer.
It was not until the early 1970's that nations such as Japan and the United
Kingdom started utilizing technology of their own for the development of the
computer. This resulted in newer components and smaller sized computers. The use
and operation of computers had developed into a form that people of average
intelligence could handle and manipulate without to much ado. When the economies
of other nations started to compete with the United States, the computer
industry expanded at a great rate. Prices dropped dramatically and computers
became more affordable to the average household. Like the invention of the
wheel, the computer is here to stay.

The operation and use of computers in our present era of the 1990's has
become so easy and simple that perhaps we may have taken too much for granted.
Almost everything of use in society requires some form of training or education.
Many people say that the predecessor to the computer was the typewriter. The
typewriter definitely required training and experience in order to operate it at
a usable and efficient level. Children are being taught basic computer skills in
the classroom in order to prepare them for the future evolution of the computer

The history of computers started out about 2000 years ago, at the birth
of the abacus, a wooden rack holding two horizontal wires with beads strung on
them. When these beads are moved around, according to programming rules
memorized by the user, all regular arithmetic problems can be done. Another
important invention around the same time was the Astrolabe, used for navigation.

Blaise Pascal is usually credited for building the first digital computer
in 1642. It added numbers entered with dials and was made to help his father, a
tax collector. In 1671, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz invented a computer that
was built in 1694. It could add, and, after changing some things around,
multiply. Leibnitz invented a special stopped gear mechanism for introducing
the addend digits, and this is still being used.

The prototypes made by Pascal and Leibnitz were not used in many places,
and considered weird until a little more than a century later, when Thomas of
Colmar (A.K.A. Charles Xavier Thomas) created the first successful mechanical
calculator that could add, subtract, multiply, and divide. A lot of improved
desktop calculators by many inventors followed, so that by about 1890, the range
of improvements included: Accumulation of partial results, storage and automatic
reentry of past results (A memory function), and printing of the results. Each
of these required manual installation. These improvements were mainly made for
commercial users, and not for the needs of science.

While Thomas of Colmar was developing the desktop calculator, a series of
very interesting developments in computers was started in Cambridge, England, by
Charles Babbage (of which the computer store "Babbages" is named), a mathematics
professor. In 1812, Babbage realized that many long calculations, especially
those needed to make mathematical tables, were really a series of predictable
actions that were constantly repeated. From this he suspected that it should be
possible to do these automatically. He began to design an automatic mechanical
calculating machine, which he called a difference engine. By 1822, he had a
working model to demonstrate. Financial help from the British Government was
attained and Babbage started fabrication of a difference engine in 1823. It was
intended to be steam powered and fully automatic, including the printing of the
resulting tables, and commanded by a fixed instruction program. The
difference engine, although having limited adaptability and applicability, was
was really a great advance. Babbage continued to work on it for the next 10
years, but in 1833 he lost interest because he thought he had a better idea; the
construction of what would now be called a general purpose, fully program-
controlled, automatic mechanical digital computer. Babbage called this idea an
Analytical Engine. The ideas of this design showed a lot of foresight, although
this couldn't be appreciated until a full century later.

The plans for this engine required an identical decimal computer operating
on numbers of 50 decimal digits (or words) and having a storage capacity
(memory) of 1,000 such digits. The built-in operations were supposed to include
everything that a modern general - purpose computer would need, even the all
important Conditional Control Transfer Capability that would allow commands to
be executed in any order, not just the order in which they were programmed.

As people can see, it took quite a large amount of intelligence and
fortitude to come to the 1990's style and use of computers. People have assumed
that computers are a natural development in society and take them for granted.
Just as people have learned to drive an automobile, it also takes skill and
learning to utilize a computer.

Computers in society have become difficult to understand. Exactly what
they consisted of and what actions they performed were highly dependent upon the
type of computer. To say a person had a typical computer doesn't necessarily
narrow down just what the capabilities of that computer was. Computer styles and
types covered so many different functions and actions, that it was difficult to
name them all. The original computers of the 1940's were easy to define their
purpose when they were first invented. They primarily performed mathematical
functions many times faster than any person could have calculated. However, the
evolution of the computer had created many styles and types that were greatly
dependent on a well defined purpose.

The computers of the 1990's roughly fell into three groups consisting of
mainframes, networking units, and personal computers. Mainframe computers were
extremely large sized modules and had the capabilities of processing and storing
massive amounts of data in the form of numbers and words. Mainframes were the
first types of computers developed in the 1940's. Users of these types of
computers ranged from banking firms, large corporations and government agencies.
They usually were very expensive in cost but designed to last at least five to
ten years. They also required well educated and experienced manpower to be
operated and maintained. Larry Wulforst, in his book Breakthrough to the
Computer Age, describes the old mainframes of the 1940's compared to those of
the 1990's by speculating, "...the contrast to the sound of the sputtering motor
powering the first flights of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk and the roar of
the mighty engines on a Cape Canaveral launching pad" (126).

Networking computers derived from the idea of bettering communications.
They were medium sized computers specifically designed to link and communicate
with other computers. The United States government initially designed and
utilized these type of computers in the 1960's in order to better the national
response to nuclear threats and attacks. The Internet developed as a direct
result of this communication system. In the 1990's, there were literally
thousands of these communication computers scattered all over the world and they
served as the communication traffic managers for the entire Internet. One source
stated it best concerning the volume of Internet computers by revealing, "...
the number of hosts on the Internet began an explosive growth. By 1988 there
were over 50,000 hosts. A year later, there were three times that many"
(Campbell-Kelly and Aspray 297).

The personal computers that are in large abundance in the 1990's are
actually very simple machines. Their basic purpose is to provide a usable
platform for a person to perform given tasks easier and faster. They perform
word processing, spread sheet functions and person to person communications just
to name a few. They are also a great form of enjoyment as many games have been
developed to play on these types of computers. These computers are the most
numerous types in the world due to there relatively small cost and size.

The internal workings and mechanics of personal computers primarily
consisted of a central processing unit, a keyboard, a video monitor and possibly
a printer unit. The central processing unit is the heart and brains of the
system. The functions of the central processing unit were based on a unit
called the Von Neumann computer designed in 1952. As stated in the book The
Dream Machine, the Von Neumann computer consisted of an input, memory, control,
arithmetic unit and output as basic processes of a central processing unit. It
has become the basic design and fundamental basis for the development of most
computers (Palfreman and Swade 48).

Works Cited

Wulforst, Harry. Breakthrough to the Computer Age. New York: Charles Scribner's
Sons, 1982.

Palferman, Jon and Doron Swade. The Dream Machine. London: BBC Books, 1991.

Campbell-Kelly, Martin and William Aspray. Computer, A History of the
Information Machine. New York: BasicBooks, 1996.


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