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Essay/Term paper: History of the computer industry in america

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Information Technology

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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, and used about 180,000 watts of electricity. It used punched-
card input and output. The ENIAC was very difficult to program because one had
to essentially re-wire it to perform whatever task he wanted the computer to do.
Itwas, however, efficient in handling the particular programs for which it had
been designed. ENIAC is generally accepted as the first successful high-speed
electronic digital computer and was used in many applications from 1946 to 1955
(Dolotta, 50).

Mathematician John von Neumann was very interested in the ENIAC. In 1945 he
undertook a theoretical study of computation that demonstrated that a computer
could have a very simple and yet be able to execute any kind of computation
effectively by means of proper programmed control without the need for any
changes in hardware. Von Neumann came up with incredible ideas for methods of
building and organizing practical, fast computers. These ideas, which came to
be referred to as the stored-program technique, became fundamental for future
generations of high-speed digital computers and were universally adopted (Hall,
73).

The first wave of modern programmed electronic computers to take advantage of
these improvements appeared in 1947. This group included computers using random
access memory (RAM), which is a memory designed to give almost constant access
to any particular piece of information (Hall, 75). These machines had punched-
card or punched-tape input and output devices and RAMs of 1000-word capacity.
Physically, they were much more compact than ENIAC: some were about the size of
a grand piano and required 2500 small electron tubes. This was quite an
improvement over the earlier machines. The first-generation stored-program
computers required considerable maintenance, usually attained 70% to 80%
reliable operation, and were used for 8 to 12 years. Typically, they were
programmed directly in machine language, although by the mid-1950s progress had
been made in several aspects of advanced programming. This group of machines
included EDVAC and UNIVAC, the first commercially available computers
(Hazewindus, 102).

The UNIVAC was developed by John W. Mauchley and John Eckert, Jr. in the 1950's.
Together they had formed the Mauchley-Eckert Computer Corporation, America's
first computer company in the 1940's. During the development of the UNIVAC,
they began to run short on funds and sold their company to the larger Remington-
Rand Corporation. Eventually they built a working UNIVAC computer. It was
delivered to the U.S. Census Bureau in 1951 where it was used to help tabulate
the U.S. population (Hazewindus, 124).

Early in the 1950s two important engineering discoveries changed the electronic
computer field. The first computers were made with vacuum tubes, but by the
late 1950's computers were being made out of transistors, which were smaller,
less expensive, more reliable, and more efficient (Shallis, 40). In 1959,
Robert Noyce, a physicist at the Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation, invented
the integrated circuit, a tiny chip of silicon that contained an entire
electronic circuit. Gone was the bulky, unreliable, but fast machine; now
computers began to become more compact, more reliable and have more capacity
(Shallis, 49).

These new technical discoveries rapidly found their way into new models of
digital computers. Memory storage capacities increased 800% in commercially
available machines by the early 1960s and speeds increased by an equally large
margin. These machines were very expensive to purchase or to rent and were
especially expensive to operate because of the cost of hiring programmers to
perform the complex operations the computers ran. Such computers were typically
found in large computer centers--operated by industry, government, and private
laboratories--staffed with many programmers and support personnel (Rogers, 77).
By 1956, 76 of IBM's large computer mainframes were in use, compared with only
46 UNIVAC's (Chposky, 125).

In the 1960s efforts to design and develop the fastest possible computers with
the greatest capacity reached a turning point with the completion of the LARC
machine for Livermore Radiation Laboratories by the Sperry-Rand Corporation, and
the Stretch computer by IBM. The LARC had a core memory of 98,000 words and
multiplied in 10 microseconds. Stretch was provided with several ranks of memory
having slower access for the ranks of greater capacity, the fastest access time
being less than 1 microseconds and the total capacity in the vicinity of 100
million words (Chposky, 147).

During this time the major computer manufacturers began to offer a range of
computer capabilities, as well as various computer-related equipment. These
included input means such as consoles and card feeders; output means such as
page printers, cathode-ray-tube displays, and graphing devices; and optional
magnetic-tape and magnetic-disk file storage. These found wide use in business
for such applications as accounting, payroll, inventory control, ordering
supplies, and billing. Central processing units (CPUs) for such purposes did
not need to be very fast arithmetically and were primarily used to access large
amounts of records on file. The greatest number of computer systems were
delivered for the larger applications, such as in hospitals for keeping track of
patient records, medications, and treatments given. They were also used in
automated library systems and in database systems such as the Chemical Abstracts
system, where computer records now on file cover nearly all known chemical
compounds (Rogers, 98).

The trend during the 1970s was, to some extent, away from extremely powerful,
centralized computational centers and toward a broader range of applications for
less-costly computer systems. Most continuous-process manufacturing, such as
petroleum refining and electrical-power distribution systems, began using
computers of relatively modest capability for controlling and regulating their
activities. In the 1960s the programming of applications problems was an
obstacle to the self-sufficiency of moderate-sized on-site computer
installations, but great advances in applications programming languages removed
these obstacles. Applications languages became available for controlling a
great range of manufacturing processes, for computer operation of machine tools,
and for many other tasks (Osborne, 146). In 1971 Marcian E. Hoff, Jr., an
engineer at the Intel Corporation, invented the microprocessor and another stage
in the development of the computer began (Shallis, 121).

A new revolution in computer hardware was now well under way, involving
miniaturization of computer-logic circuitry and of component manufacture by what
are called large-scale integration techniques. In the 1950s it was realized
that "scaling down" the size of electronic digital computer circuits and parts
would increase speed and efficiency and improve performance. However, at that
time the manufacturing methods were not good enough to accomplish such a task.
About 1960 photoprinting of conductive circuit boards to eliminate wiring became
highly developed. Then it became possible to build resistors and capacitors into
the circuitry by photographic means (Rogers, 142). In the 1970s entire
assemblies, such as adders, shifting registers, and counters, became available
on tiny chips of silicon. In the 1980s very large scale integration (VLSI), in
which hundreds of thousands of transistors are placed on a single chip, became
increasingly common. Many companies, some new to the computer field, introduced
in the 1970s programmable minicomputers supplied with software packages. The
size-reduction trend continued with the introduction of personal computers,
which are programmable machines small enough and inexpensive enough to be
purchased and used by individuals (Rogers, 153).

One of the first of such machines was introduced in January 1975. Popular
Electronics magazine provided plans that would allow any electronics wizard to
build his own small, programmable computer for about $380 (Rose, 32). The
computer was called the Altair 8800Ó. Its programming involved pushing buttons
and flipping switches on the front of the box. It didn't include a monitor or
keyboard, and its applications were very limited (Jacobs, 53). Even though,
many orders came in for it and several famous owners of computer and software
manufacturing companies got their start in computing through the Altair. For
example, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, founders of Apple Computer, built a much
cheaper, yet more productive version of the Altair and turned their hobby into a
business (Fluegelman, 16).

After the introduction of the Altair 8800, the personal computer industry became
a fierce battleground of competition. IBM had been the computer industry
standard for well over a half-century. They held their position as the standard
when they introduced their first personal computer, the IBM Model 60 in 1975
(Chposky, 156). However, the newly formed Apple Computer company was releasing
its own personal computer, the Apple II (The Apple I was the first computer
designed by Jobs and Wozniak in Wozniak's garage, which was not produced on a
wide scale). Software was needed to run the computers as well. Microsoft
developed a Disk Operating System (MS-DOS) for the IBM computer while Apple
developed its own software system (Rose, 37). Because Microsoft had now set the
software standard for IBMs, every software manufacturer had to make their
software compatible with Microsoft's. This would lead to huge profits for
Microsoft (Cringley, 163).

The main goal of the computer manufacturers was to make the computer as
affordable as possible while increasing speed, reliability, and capacity.
Nearly every computer manufacturer accomplished this and computers popped up
everywhere. Computers were in businesses keeping track of inventories.
Computers were in colleges aiding students in research. Computers were in
laboratories making complex calculations at high speeds for scientists and
physicists. The computer had made its mark everywhere in society and built up a
huge industry (Cringley, 174).

The future is promising for the computer industry and its technology. The speed
of processors is expected to double every year and a half in the coming years.
As manufacturing techniques are further perfected the prices of computer systems
are expected to steadily fall. However, since the microprocessor technology
will be increasing, it's higher costs will offset the drop in price of older
processors. In other words, the price of a new computer will stay about the same
from year to year, but technology will steadily increase (Zachary, 42)

Since the end of World War II, the computer industry has grown from a standing
start into one of the biggest and most profitable industries in the United
States. It now comprises thousands of companies, making everything from multi-
million dollar high-speed supercomputers to printout paper and floppy disks. It
employs millions of people and generates tens of billions of dollars in sales
each year (Malone, 192). Surely, the computer has impacted every aspect of
people's lives. It has affected the way people work and play. It has made
everyone's life easier by doing difficult work for people. The computer truly
is one of the most incredible inventions in history.

Works Cited

Chposky, James. Blue Magic. New York: Facts on File Publishing. 1988.

Cringley, Robert X. Accidental Empires. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley Publishing,
1992.

Dolotta, T.A. Data Processing: 1940-1985. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1985.

Fluegelman, Andrew. "A New World", MacWorld. San Jose, Ca: MacWorld Publishing,
February, 1984 (Premire Issue).

Hall, Peter. Silicon Landscapes. Boston: Allen & Irwin, 1985

Gulliver, David. Silicon Valey and Beyond. Berkeley, Ca: Berkeley Area
Government Press, 1981.

Hazewindus, Nico. The U.S. Microelectronics Industry. New York: Pergamon Press,
1988.

Jacobs, Christopher W. ÒThe Altair 8800Ó, Popular Electronics. New York:
Popular Electronics Publishing, January 1975.

Malone, Michael S. The Big Scare: The U.S. Coputer Industry. Garden City, NY:
Doubleday & Co., 1985.

Osborne, Adam. Hypergrowth. Berkeley, Ca: Idthekkethan Publishing Company,
1984.

Rogers, Everett M. Silicon Valey Fever. New York: Basic Books, Inc. Publishing,
1984.

Rose, Frank. West of Eden. New York: Viking Publishing, 1989.

Shallis, Michael. The Silicon Idol. New York: Shocken Books, 1984.

Soma, John T. The History of the Computer. Toronto: Lexington Books, 1976.

Zachary, William. ÒThe Future of ComputingÓ, Byte. Boston: Byte Publishing,
August 1994.

x

 

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