The history of computing is an interesting journey that begins with the invention of the abacus in 3000 BC. It followed by the invention of mechanical calculators in the year 1617.
Zeroth, first, second, and third generation computers invented between the year 1642 till 1980. The period beyond 1980 till the present day is marked by fourth generation computers.
Fifth generation computers are still under research and development phase.
In this tutorial, we will take a closer look at the history of computing and how they have evolved over time.
Origins of Computing: The Abacus
We can trace the origin of computing device back to the invention of the abacus. It is a considered as the first computing device developed in 3000 BC that is a simple device used for performing arithmetic calculations.
The computing device abacus consists of a row of wires held in a wooden frame having beads stung on them, as shown in the below figure. Each row represents a different place value, and the beads represent numbers.
When these beads are moved around, according to some programming rules memorized by users, all regular arithmetic operations, such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, can be performed.
It is believed that the abacus has been invented in ancient Sumeria around 5000 years ago. Later on, other different cultures, including the Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans, adopted it.
The abacus device was especially popular in China, where the people of China used for thousands of years and became an important tool for commerce.
Abacus was very simple, easy to use, portable and didn’t require any external power source. However, the abacus had some limitations. It was not well-suited for complex calculations.
Errors can be possible when moving the beads. As a result, the abacus was mostly used for simple arithmetic operations, such as addition and subtraction.
Despite its limitations, the abacus remained in use for thousands of years. It was an important tool for early mathematicians and traders. It paved the way for future computing devices and set the foundation for the development of modern computers.
Napier’s Bones: A Manual Calculating Device
In the early 17th century, a Scottish Mathematician, John Napier invented a manually operated calculating device known as Napier Bones.
This calculating tool consists of a set of rectangular rods, usually made of bone or ivory, with numbers inscribed on them. Therefore, they were called Napier’s bones. Each rod represents a single digit number, from 0 to 9.
Users arranged these rods in a specific order, and by stacking them in various combinations, they can perform addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.
For instance, to multiply 123 by 7, the user would stack the rods in the following configuration:
1 | 2 | 3 7 | | --|---|--- 8 | 6 | 1
Users can read off the answer 861from the bottom row of the stacked rods.
Napier’s Bones was also the first machine to use the decimal point. It was an important development in the history of computing. It brought a significant improvement over the abacus, which was limited to simple arithmetic operations. This calculating device was also portable and relatively easy to use, making it popular with merchants.
Napier’s Bones was some limitations. It could only perform multiplication and division. It was not well-suited for more complex calculations. In addition, users could easily make errors when stacking the rods, especially for larger numbers.
Despite its some limitations, Napier’s Bones was an important step forward in the history of computing. It opened the way for future developments in computing, including the development of mechanical calculators and eventually, electronic computers.
Pascaline or Pascal’s Calculator
In the mid-17th century (i.e. 1642), the young French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal invented the first mechanical calculator known as Pascaline. He designed this calculator to help his father, a tax accountant. It could add and subtract the numbers.
It was an important development in the history of computing and laid the foundation for future mechanical calculators and computers. The Pascaline consisted of a rectangular box with a series of movable wheels, gears, and dials.
Users entered the input numbers by rotating the wheels to the suitable digits, and then turn a crank to perform the calculation. The result is displayed on a series of dials. They could perform addition and subtraction of numbers up to hundreds and thousands using Pascal’s calculator.
Therefore, Pascaline is also known as an arithmetic machine or adding machine. It is thought that Pascaline was the first mechanical and automatic calculator.
The Pascaline was a significant improvement over earlier calculating devices, such as Napier’s Bones. This is because it could perform both addition and subtraction, and was also less prone to errors. However, it still had limited capabilities and could not perform more complex calculations, such as multiplication and division.
Despite its limitations, the Pascal’s calculator was popular with merchants and accountants. It was widely used for several decades after its invention. The Pascaline laid the mode in the development of mechanical calculators and calculators for the future.
Stepped Reckoner or Leibnitz Calculator
In the late 17th century (i.e. 1671 AD), a German mathematician Gottfried Von Leibnitz invented a digital mechanical calculator known as Leibniz Calculator. We also known it as a stepped reckoner.
Leibniz calculator was an improved version of Pascaline because it was capable of performing more complex calculations, including multiplication and division with decimals.
This calculator could perform all four arithmetic operations, such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division of numbers up to hundreds and thousands. It was also capable of handling decimal.
Leibniz calculator was also faster and more efficient than earlier devices, although it was still prone to errors. Apart from this, the Leibnitz calculator could even find the square root of numbers.
Leibnitz calculator made up of a series of stepped drums, with each step representing a different digit. Users could input numbers by rotating the drums to the suitable digits and then turn a crank to perform the calculation. A series of dials would display the result.
Despite its some limitations, the Leibniz Calculator was an important development in the history of computing. It laid the foundation for calculating devices in future.
In 1822, a British mathematician, Charles Babbage (also known as father of modern computer) invented a mechanical computing device called Difference Engine. This mechanical calculator was designed to perform simple mathematical operations automatically.
In the invention of Difference Engine, Babbage had used a series of gears and levers to perform mathematical operations automatically and quickly. He spent several years working on the Difference Engine, but could never complete a working model.
However, his ideas and designs were greatly influential in the development of later computers. Modern computing devices are still using the principles of the Difference Engine.
In 1830, Charles Babbage also developed a theoretical mechanical computer called Analytical Engine. This engine was considered as the first general purpose computer in the world. It was a more advanced version of his earlier invention, the Difference Engine.
This computing device was designed to be capable of solving any type of mathematical problem and storing information as a permanent memory.
This engine had five units: Input, Output, Store, Mill, and Control. One of the most innovative features of the Analytical Engine was its use of punched cards for input and output.
Mill was calculating unit, and the Store unit was used for storing data. The function of Control unit was to supervise all the units. All these units worked like the modern computer.
The Analytical Engine was a remarkable machine for its time. It incorporated several significant features that would later become standard in modern computers. All the modern computers which are used today are based on it.
This is because it included a memory storage system, a program control unit, and the ability to perform arithmetic and logical operations.
This Engine was an important milestone in the history of computing because it represented a significant leap forward in the development of mechanical computers.
It helped to establish many of the key concepts and principles that would later become the key to modern computers. Today, the Analytical Engine is remembered as one of the most important and influential inventions in the history of computers.
In 1890 AD, an American statistician, Herman Hollerith, invented a mechanical tabulating machine based on punch cards. This mechanical computer was capable of reading large amounts of data, processing it, and giving the desired output.
At that time, the US government was struggling to process the large amounts of data collected during the 1890 census. Then, Hollerith’s invention was used in the 1890 U.S. Census and helped to process to store and process the data.
This tabulating machine comprised a series of interconnected devices, including a card reader, sorter, and tabulator. The punched cards had fed through the machine to record and store data or information.
The machine could read and process the data quickly and accurately. It significantly reduced the time and effort required to process the census data.
After processing census data successfully, other industries, including banking and finance, had used the tabulating machine widespread.
Using punched cards for data storage and processing remained a primal technology in computing for decades to come. Many early computers had used similar systems for input and output.
Hollerith’s invention laid the foundation for later developments in computing devices. Hollerith also started up the Hollerith Tabulating Machine Company, which later became the International Business Machine (IBM) in 1924. This company became to be one of the most influential and successful computer companies in history.
In 1930, an American Vannevar Bush invented the first electronic computer device. It was an analog device designed to solve differential equations, which are used in science and engineering.
The Differential Analyzer machine uses vacuum tubes to switch electrical signals to perform calculations. It was the capable of doing 25 calculations in a few minutes.
This machine was an important tool for scientists and engineers in the mid-20th century because it could solve complex differential equations quickly and accurately. Later on, it was used in a wide range of applications, from designing aircraft to studying the behavior of the human brain.
Despite its some limits, the Differential Analyzer helped to establish the importance of analog computing in scientific research and laid the groundwork for later developments in digital computing.
Mark I Computer: Modern Machines
The next big changes in the history of computer began in 1937 when a Harvard graduate student, Howard H. Aiken, invented the first electro-mechanical computer, known as Mark-I.
This computer was capable of solving calculation involving large numbers and advanced mathematical physics problems. Mark-I was become the first digital computer developed by Aiken and the primary engineers of IBM in 1944.
The Mark I was a massive computer machine, measuring over 50 feet in length and weighing over 5 tons. It used punched cards to accept instructions and data, stored them in memory and made calculations with the help of automatically controlled electromagnetic relays.
This machine could perform complex mathematical calculations at a rate of 3 additions or subtractions per second. However, it was extremely slow as compered with modern computers.
The Mark-I was the first machine to use electronic circuits to perform calculations. It was also the first machine to be fully programmable, meaning that it could be reprogrammed to perform different tasks by changing the punched paper tape.
During World War II, the US navy extensively used this computer in the development of ballistic tables. A wide range of scientific research, from astronomy to genetics, also used this computer.
Thus, the Mark I played a significant role in the development of computing technology. It helped to establish the importance of electronic computing in scientific research and paved the way for the development of modern computers and information technology.
In this tutorial, you have known about a fascinating history of computing with timeline as well as a brief history of computers. Hope that you will have understood the basic points of computer’s history.
Thanks for reading!!!