Source Knol: Brief History of Computers
By Kevin Spaulding, Sunnyvale, CA
The Early days (1,000 B.C. to 1940)
Computers are named so because they make mathematical computations at fast speeds. As a result, the history of computing goes back at least 3,000 years ago, when ancient civilizations were making great strides in arithmetic and mathematics. The Greeks, Egyptians, Babylonians, Indians, Chinese, and Persians were all interested in logic and numerical computation. The Greeks focused on geometry and rationality , the Egyptians on simple addiction and subtraction , the Babylonians on multiplication and division , Indians on the base-10 decimal numbering system and concept of zero , the Chinese on trigonometry, and the Persians on algorithmic problem solving.  These developments carried over into the more modern centuries, fueling advancements in areas like astronomy, chemistry, and medicine.
Pascal, Leibnitz, and Jacquard
During the first half of the 17th century there were very important advancements in the automation and simplification of arithmetic computation. John Napier invented logarithms to simplify difficult mathematical computations.  The slide rule was introduced in the year 1622 , and Blaise Pascal spent most of his life in the 1600's working on a calculator called the Pascaline.  The Pascaline was mostly finished by 1672 and was able to do addition and subtraction by way of mechanical cogs and gears.  In 1674 the German mathematician Gottfried Leibnitz created a mechanical calculator called the Leibnitz Wheel.  This 'wheel' could perform addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, albeit not very well in all instances.
Neither the Pascaline or Leibnitz wheel can be categorized as computers because they did not have memory where information could be stored and because they were not programmable.  The first device that did satisfy these requirements was a loom developed in 1801 by Joseph Jacquard.  Jacquard built his loom to automate the process of weaving rugs and clothing. It did this using punched cards that told the machine what pattern to weave. Where there was a hole in the card the machine would weave and where there was no hole the machine would not weave. Jacquard's idea of punched cards was later used by computer companies like IBM to program software.
Charles Babbage was a mathematics professor at Cambridge University who was interested in automated computation. In 1823 he introduced the Difference Engine, the largest and most sophisticated mechanical calculator of his time. Along with addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division to 6 digits-- the Difference Engine could also solve polynomial equations.  It was never actually completed because the British Government cut off funding for the project in 1842.  After this Babbage began to draw up plans for an Analytical Machine, a general-purpose programmable computing machine.  Many people consider this to be the first true computer system even though it only ever existed on paper. The Analytical Machine had all the same basic parts that modern computer systems have.  While designing the Analytical Machine, Babbage noticed that he could perfect his Difference Engine by using 8,000 parts rather than 25,000 and could solve up to 20 digits instead of just 6. He drew schematics for a Difference Engine no. 2 between 1847 and 1849.
After twelve years spent trying to get his Difference Engine No. 2 built, Babbage had to give up. The British Government was not interested in funding the machine and the technology to build the gears, cogs, and levers for the machine did not exist in that time period. Babbage's plans for the Difference Engine and Difference Engine No. 2 were hidden away after his death, and finally resurfaced around 150 years after they'd each been conceived. In 1991 a team of engineers at the Science Museum in London completed the calculating section of Babbage's Difference Engine.  In 2002 the same museum created a full fledged model of the Difference Engine No. 2 that weighs 5 tons and has 8,000 parts.  Miraculously, it worked just as Babbage had envisioned. A duplicate of this engine was built and was sent to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA to be demonstrated and displayed until May 2009.
In America during the late 1800's there were many immigrants pouring in from all over the world. Officials at the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that it would take ten to twelve years to do the 1890 census. By the time they finished it would be 1900, and they'd have to do the census all over again! The problem was that all of the calculations for the census were performed manually. To solve their problems the U.S. Census Bureau held a competition that called for proposals outlining a better way to do the census.  The winner of the competition was Herman Hollerith, a statistician, who proposed that the use of automation machines would greatly reduce the time needed to do the census. He then designed and built programmable card processing machines that would read, tally, and sort data entered on punch cards. The census data was coded onto cards using a keypunch. Then these cards were taken to a tabulator (counting and tallying) or sorter (ordering alphabetically or numerically). 
Hollerith's machines were not all-purpose computers but they were a step in that direction. They successfully completed the census in just 2 years. The 1880 census had taken 8 years to complete and the population was 30% smaller then, which meant that automated processing was definitely more efficient for large scale operations.  Hollerith saw the potential in his tabulating and sorting machines, so he left the U.S. Census Bureau to found the Computer Tabulating Recording Company. His punch-card machines became national bestsellers and in 1924 Hollerith's company changed its name to IBM after a series of mergers with other similar companies.  The computer age was about to begin.
Birth of Computers (1940-1950)
World War II brought concerns about how to calculate the logistics of such a large scale battle. The United States needed to calculate ballistics, deploy massive amounts of troops, and crack secret codes. The military started a number of research projects to try and build computers that could help with these tasks and more. In 1931 the U.S. Navy and IBM began working together to build a general-purpose computer called the Mark 1. It was the first computer to use the base-2 binary system, was programmable, and made of vacuum tubes, relays, magnets, and gears. The Mark 1 was completed in 1944.  The Mark 1 had a memory for 72 numbers and could perform 23-digit multiplication in 4 seconds.  It was operational for 15 years and performed many calculations for the U.S. Navy during WWII.
The Mark 1 was still a mix of electronic and mechanical. At the same time as the Mark 1, however, there was another project taking place. During WWII the United States army was building new artillery that required firing tables. These firing tables were created by way of intense mathematical calculation that took a very long time to manually compute. To help make this process process quicker the Army started a project in 1943 to build a completely electronic computing device.  J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly headed the project and eventually created the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator (ENIAC), which was completed in 1946. The ENIAC had 18,000 vacuum tubes and absolutely gigantic; 100 feet long, 10 feet high, and 30 tons. It was about a thousand times faster than the Mark 1 at multiplying numbers and 300 times faster at addition. 
Another computer designed during WWII was the Colossus, by Alan Turing. This computer cracked the German Enigma code, helping us win the war against the Nazis. Germany themselves were designing a computer much like the ENIAC, code named the Z1. The Z1 project, headed by Konrad Zuse, was never completed. 
Though the computers developed in the second World War were definitely computers, they were not the kind of computers we are used to in modern times. Jon Von Neumann helped work on the ENIAC and figured out how to make computers even better. The ENIAC was programmed externally with wires, connectors, and plugs. Von Neumann wanted to make programming something that was internalized. Instead of rerouting wires and plugs, a person could write a different sequence of instructions that changes the way a computer runs. Neumann created the idea of the stored computer program, which is still implemented today in computers that use the 'Von Neumann Architecture'. 
First Generation (1950 - 1957)
The first computer to implement Von Neumann's idea was the EDVAC in 1951, developed in a project led by Von Neumann himself. At the same time a computer using stored programs was developed in England, called the EDSAC.  The EDVAC was commercialized and called the UNIVAC 1. It was sold to the U.S. Bureau of the Census in March, 1951. This was actually the first computer ever built for sale.  The UNIVAC 1 made a famous appearance on CBS in November, 1952 during the presidential election.  The television network had rented the computer to boost ratings, planning to have the computer predict who would win the election. The UNIVAC predicted very early on that Eisenhower would beat Stevenson, which was correct. Network executives were skeptical and did not go live with the prediction until they had arrived at the same conclusion using manual methods. The UNIVAC sat right behind CBS staff during the broadcast, and it was the first time that many people had the chance to see this elusive new technology called the computer.
IBM's first production computer was the IBM 701 Defense Calculator, introduced in April, 1952.  The IBM 701 was used mostly for scientific calculation. The EDVAC, EDSAC, UNIVAC 1, and IBM 701 were all large, expensive, slow, and unreliable pieces of technology-- like all computers of this time.  Some other computers of this time worth mentioning are the Whirlwind, developed at Massachussets Institute of Technology, and JOHNNIAC, by the Rand Corporation. The Whirlwind was the first computer to display real time video and use core memory.  The JOHNNIAC was named in honor of Jon Von Neumann. Computers at this time were usually kept in special locations like government and university research labs or military compounds. Only specially trained personnel were granted access to these computers. Because they used vacuum tubes to calculate and store information, these computers were also very hard to maintain. First generation computers also used punched cards to store symbolic programming languages.  Most people were indirectly affected by this first generation of computing machines and knew little of their existence.
Second Generation (1957 - 1965)
The second generation of computing took place between 1957 and 1965. Computers were now implementing transistors, which had been invented in 1947 by a group of reseachers at Bell Laboratories, instead of vacuum tubes.  Because of the transistor and advances in electrical engineering, computers were now cheaper, faster, more reliable, and cheaper than ever before. More universities, businesses, and government agencies could actually afford computers now.
In 1957 the first FORTRAN compiler was released. FORTRAN was the first high-level programming language ever made.  It was developed by IBM for scientific and engineering use. In 1959, the COmmon Business-Oriented Language (COBOL) programming language was released. Where FORTRAN was designed for science and engineering, COBOL was designed to serve business environments with their finances and administrative tasks.  These two programming languages essentially helped to create the occupation of a programmer. Before these languages, programming computers required electrical engineering knowledge.
This generation of computers also had an increase in the use of core memory and disks for mass storage. A notable computer to mention from this time period is the IBM System/360, a mainframe computer that is considered one of the important milestones in the industry. It was actually a family of computer models that could be sold to a wide variety of businesses and institutions. 
Third Generation (1965 - 1975)
The third generation of computing spanned from 1965 to 1975. During this time integrated circuits with transistors, resistors, and capacitors were etched onto a piece of silicon. This reduced the price and size of computers, adding to a general trend in the computer industry of miniaturization. In 1960 the Digital Equipment Corporation introduced the Programmed Data Processor- 1 (PDP-1), which can be called the first minicomputer due to its relatively small size.  It is classified as a third generation computer because of the way it was built, even though it was made before 1965. The PDP-1 was also the computer that ran the very first video game, called Spacewar (written in 1962). 
The software industry came into existence in the mid 1970's as companies formed to write programs that would satisfy the increasing number of computer users. Computers were being used everywhere in business, government, military, and education environments. Because of there target market, the first software companies mostly offered accounting and statistical programs.  This time period also had the first set of computing standards created for compatibility between systems.
E-mail originated sometime between 1961 and 1966, allowing computer users to send messages to each other as long as they were connected through a network.  This is closely tied to the work that was being done on Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), networking technology and innovation that would one day bring the internet. 
Fourth Generation (1975 - 1985)
The fourth generation of computing spanned from 1975 to 1985. Computer technology had advanced so rapidly that computers could fit in something the size of a typewriter. These were called microcomputers, the first one being the Altair 8800. The Altair 8800 debuted in 1975 as a mail-order hobby kit. Many people acknowledge the Altair 8800 as the computer that sparked the modern computer revolution, especially since Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Microsoft with a programming language called Altair BASIC-- made specifically for the 8800.  Now that computers could fit on desks they became much more common.
A small company called Apple Computer, Inc. was established in 1976 and single handedly changed the industry forever. Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs began to sell their Apple 1 computer that same year, and it quickly gained popularity. It came with a keyboard and only required a monitor to be plugged into the back of the system, which was a novel idea for computers at that time. The Apple II was released the next year and was the first mass produced microcomputer to be commercially sold, and also ushered in the era of personal computing.
In 1981, Microsoft Disk Operating System (MS-DOS) was released to run on the Intel 8086 microprocessor.  Over the next few years MS-DOS became the most popular operating system in the world, eventually leading to Microsoft Windows 1.0 being released in 1985.  In 1984 Apple introduced their Mac OS, which was the first operating system to be completely graphical. Both Mac OS and Windows used pull-down menus, icons, and windows to make computing more user-friendly. Computers were now being controlled with a mouse as well as keyboard. The first mouse was developed in 1981 by Xerox. 
Software became much more common and diverse during this period with the development of spreadsheets, databases, and drawing programs. Computer networks and e-mail became much more prevalent as well.
The first truly portable computer, called the Osborne 1, was released in 1981.  Portable computers like the TRS-80 Model 100 / 102 and IBM 5155 followed afterward. 
Not all the computers of the time were small, of course. There were still being supercomputers built with the aim of being as fast as possible. These supercomputers were sold to companies, universities, and the military. An example of one such supercomputer is the Cray-1, which was released in 1976 by Cray Research.  It became one of the best known and most successful supercomputers ever for its unique design and fast speed of 250 MFLOPS.
This generation was also important for the development of embedded systems. These are special systems, usually very tiny, that have computers inside to control their operation.  These embedded systems were put into things like cars, thermostats, microwave ovens, wristwatches, and more.
Fifth Generation (1985 - Present)
The changes that have occurred since 1985 are plentiful. Computers have gotten tinier, more reliable, and many times faster. Computers are mostly built using components from many different corporations. For this reason, it is easier to focus on specific component advancements. Intel and AMD are the main computer processor companies in the world today and are constant rivals.  There are many different personal computer companies that usually sell their hardware with a Microsoft Windows operating system preinstalled. Apple has a wide line of hardware and software as well.  Computer graphics have gotten very powerful and are able to display full three dimensional graphics at high resolution.  Nvidia and ATI are two companies in constant battle with one another to be the computer graphics hardware king.
The software industry has grown a lot as well, offering all kinds of programs for almost anything you can think of. Microsoft Windows still dominates the operating system scene. In 1995 Microsoft released Windows 95, an operating system that catapulted them to a new level of dominance.  In 1999 Apple revamped its operating system with the release of Mac OS X.  In 1991 Linus Torvalds wrote the Linux kernel that has since spawned countless open source operating systems and open source software. 
Computers have become more and more online orientated in modern times, especially with the development of the World Wide Web. Popular companies like Google and Yahoo! were started because of the internet. 
In 2008 the IBM Roadrunner was introduced as the fastest computer in the world at 1.026 PFLOPS.  Fast supercomputers aid in the production of movie special effects and the making of computer animated movies. 
This is a very exciting time to be alive since we all get to see how quickly computer technology is evolving, and how much it is changing all of our lives for the better. I recommend that you take the time to visit a computer history museum so you can see some of the machines mentioned in this knol. I also suggest that you do in-depth research to learn more about any specific areas of computing that interest you. It is a vast and exciting world that is always changing. We are lucky to be alive to witness computers past and present.
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