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A History Of Computers

Today, most people have a computer in their home. They are an integral part of our everyday day lives and help us accomplish the most simple of tasks, right down to getting a needed phone number. Do we really appreciate and know how the computer was first developed and where it came from?


Before the computer and electricity there was the typewriter. There were many contributors to this invention, so there can be no credit given to any single person. The history of the typewriter starts in 1714 with Henry Mill, British Inventor, who obtained a patent for what seems to be similar a similar invention to the typewriter.

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From 1829 to 1870 many inventors tried to patent a typing device in both Europe and America. However, none of these patents / inventions went into commercial production. Some of these inventors include Henry Mill (a British Inventor) and William Austin Burt (American inventor, legislator, surveyor, and millwright). For a more complete list visit Wikipedia.Org.

In 1870 a Danish inventor Rasmus Malling-Hansen became the first person to commercially sell the typewriter in 1870 and in that same year Thomas Edison invented the first electric typewriter.

Inventors spent years working to perfect this, only to see newer technology make it obsolete. Just like the model T did to the horse and carriage.

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Charles Babbage, also know as “the father of computing”, originated the idea of a programmable computer. “Babbage’s engines were among the first mechanical computers, although they were not actually completed, largely because of funding problems and personality issues. He directed the building of some steam-powered machines that achieved some success, suggesting that calculations could be mechanized. Although Babbage’s machines were mechanical and unwieldy, their basic architecture was very similar to a modern computer. The data and program memory were separated, operation was instruction based, the control unit could make conditional jumps and the machine had a separate in/output unit.”

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The Atanasoff Berry Computer (AKA ABC) was the first electronic computer which weighed more than 700 pounds. Work began on this computer in 1937 by John Vincent Atansaoff and Clifford Berry. This new machine was capable of solving up to 29 simultaneous linear equations. However, the input/output was unreliable and its inventors had to leave Iowa State University for World War II in 1942, leaving the progress of their project untouched. Because the inventors had left for war they were not widely known until the machine was rediscovered in the 1960’s which caused the controversy of the first computer.

“The ABC first demonstrated in 1939 may not have been much of a computer, just as the Wrights’ model was not much of an airplane, but it opened the way,” said Allan R. Mackintosh, Professor at the University of Copenhagen.

The ENIAC was invented by John Mauchly and John Presper Eckert in 1943. The physical size of this machine is enormous compared to the computers we have today. According to Wikipedia the ENIAC “contained 17,468 vacuum tubes, 7,200 crystal diodes, 1,500 relays, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors and around 5 million hand-soldered joints. It weighed 30 short tons (27 t), was roughly 8.5 feet by 3 feet by 80 feet (2.6 m by 0.9 m by 26 m), took up 680 square feet (63 m²), and consumed 150 kW of power. Input was possible from an IBM card reader, while an IBM card punch was used for output.”

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1973 the U.S. District Court invalidated the ENIAC patent and ruled that the ABC was th e first computer.

In an interview with John Presper Eckert conducted by Alexander Randall 5th, Professor of Communication at the University of the Virgin Islands, asked several questions pertaining to the ENIAC:

Randall: What could that machine do?


“It could solve linear differential equations, but only linear equations. It had a long framework divided into sections with a couple dozen shafts buried through it. You could put different gears on the shafts using screwdrivers and hammers and it had “integrators,” that gave [the] product of two shafts coming in on a third shaft coming out. By picking the right gear ratio you should get the right constants in the equation. We used published tables to pick the gear ratios to get whatever number you wanted. The limit on accuracy of this machine was the slippage of the mechanical wheels on the integrator. That made me say, “Let’s built electronic integrators and stick them into this machine instead of those wheel things.” We added several dozen motors and amplifiers and circuits using over 400 vacuum tubes, which, as electronic things go, is not trivial. The radio has only five or six tubes, and television sets have up to 30. The Nova Chord organ was built prior to this and it has about 170 tubes. The Bush Analyzer was still essentially a mechanical device. That led me to examine if I could find some way to multiply pulse numbers together so I didn’t need gears — then I could do the whole thing electrically. There’s a theorem in calculus where you can use two integrators to do a multiplication. I talked with John Mauchley about it. Just who put in which part is hard to tell, but the idea of doing the integrations by counters was mine.
The ENIAC was the first electronic digital computer and could add those two 10-digit numbers in 0.0002 seconds — that’s 50,000 times faster than a human, 20,000 times faster than a calculator and 1,500 times faster than the Mark 1. For specialized scientific calculations it was even faster.”

Randall: What did ENIAC’s room look like?


“We built ENIAC in a room that was 30 feet by 50 feet, at the Moore School in West Philadelphia on the first floor.”

Randall: How many people were working on ENIAC?


Total count was about 50 people, 12 of us engineers or technical people. Mauchley was teaching part-time, others had part-time jobs. I was on it full-time as chief engineer.

In addition to this interview Randall discussed the controversy of who built the first computer. This is what Eckert had to say:

“In the course of a patent fight, the other side brought up Atanasoff and tried to show that he built an electronic computer ahead of us. It’s true he had a lab bench tabletop kind of thing and John [Mauchley] went out to look at it and wrote a memo, but we never used any of it. His thing didn’t really work. He didn’t have a whole system. That’s a big thing with an invention: You have to have a whole system that works.
John and I not only built ENIAC. It worked. And it worked for a decade doing what it was designed to do. We went on to build BINAC and UNIVAC and hundreds of other computers. And the company we started is still in operation after many name changes as Unisys, and I am still working for that company. Atanasoff may have won a point in court, but he went back to teaching and we went on to build the first real electronic programmable computers, the first commercial computers. We made a lot of computers, and we still are.”


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The Apple Macintosh debuts in 1984. It features a simple, graphical interface, uses the 8-MHz, 32-bit Motorola 68000 CPU, and has a built-in 9-inch B/W screen.


Early scientists said “computers will never be small enough to be portable”

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The Epson HX-20 was considered first portable computer (AKA Laptop, Notebook) was developed in 1981. It was the size of a sewing machine and was not battery operated.


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Computers were once looked upon as a unimportant piece of technology “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers” – Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM, 1943, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home” – Ken Olsen, President, Chairman and Founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977, now inventors have been trying to perfect and improve the core operating functions of the computer. Computers that were initially built for calculation purposes has now led us into the twenty first century of portable laptops, handheld PDA’s, desk tops, robotics (self-cleaning vacuum, robot toys, etc), animated films, GPS Systems, world wide web, and so much more.

As our technology continues to advance rapidly, I wonder what inventions will created in the near and distant future? Will desktops become obsolete and replaced by another form of technology? Will newer advances in electronic technology replace the need for paper? One thing that frightens me a little is computer technology replacing the need for human interaction. For example, the use of cameras in traffic lights, radar equipment to detect speed without a police officer ever pulling you over, GPS devices to track you where ever whenever, machinery replacing labor in the construction fields, and so many other areas that have been taken over the by the computer. Will these advances in technology eventually control us and replace people in the work field? These are questions we need to ask ourselves as we move into the next century.

What kind of future do you want for yourself and your kids?

19 Responses to A History Of Computers

  1. Hi , I’m Charles. I had to read through most of your back posts on this site because I really liked this particular article, you did a great job, it must’ve taken sometime to research. Hope to read more from the shoplet blog.

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  5. Nice posting.
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