A BRIEF HISTORY OF COMPUTERS
Although the microcomputer is a very recent development, computers have been
around for a long time. A major step in computer technology was the development in the
early 1800’s of machines that could be programmed.
Joseph Jacquard developed a loom for weaving cloth whose operation was
controlled by means of cards with holes punched in them. In 1886, Herman Hollerith
improved on Jacquard’s punched card by developing a card that could be used with
electrical rather than mechanical equipment. The Hollerith (or IBM) card is still very
much in use.
In 1944 engineers from IBM and Howard Aiken of Harvard University developed
a machine called the Mark I. This 50-foot long and 8-foot high machine was able to add,
subtract, multiply, divide, and refer to data tables using punched cards.
The first all-electronic computer, based on vacuum tubes, was developed in 1946
by J. Presper Eckert and John W. Mauchly of the University of Pennsylvania. This
computer could make calculations a thousand times faster than earlier devices.
In 1947 John von Neumann developed a method for storing programs
electronically. This invention of storing programs led the way for the development of
today’s computers. Before Mr. von Neumann’s invention, computers were wired to
perform certain tasks. If you wanted to change the task, the computer had to be rewired.
Today, we give microcomputers instructions by loading an appropriate software program
which contains machine instructions. If we want to make the computer perform another
task, we load another piece of software or depress a function key on the computer to
direct the machine to perform the desired task.
Besides becoming more flexible, computers are now much faster, cheaper, and
smaller. In 1952, one of the original IBM computers could perform about 2,000
multiplications per second. By the mid 1970’s operating speed had increased by more
than 2,000 percent, to 43,000 multiplications per second.
The development of technology whereby microscopic circuits could be part of
tiny silicon chips led the way for desktop microcomputers. Microcomputers were first
introduced in the mid 1970’s. At that time, these small computers had limited memory
and storage ability. Today’s desktop microcomputers can have as much capability as
those of much larger computer systems. And they are affordable for the home user, too!