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Did you know that the history of computers dates back to the 1800s? Indeed, the history and evolution of computers is quite extraordinary and with many early computing technology innovations tied to defense contracts, much of this information were kept secret from the public for decades. Mid-1800s-1930s: Early Mechanical Computers The first computers were designed by Charles Babbage in the mid-1800s, and are sometimes collectively known as the Babbage Engines. These early computers were never completed during Babbage’s lifetime, but their complete designs were preserved. While these early mechanical computers bore little resemblance to the computers in use today, they paved the way for a number of technologies that are used by modern computers, or were instrumental in their development. These concepts include of the idea of separating storage from processing, the logical structure of computers, and the way that data and instructions are inputted and outputted. 1930s: Electro-Mechanical Computers Electro-mechanical computers generally worked with relays and/or vacuum tubes, which could be used as switches. Some electro-mechanical computers used purely mechanical internals but employed electric motors to power them. These early electro-mechanical computers were either analog or were digital. Stibitz, was also responsible for the first remote access computing, done at a conference at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. He took a teleprinter to the conference, leaving his computer in New York City, and then proceeded to take problems posed by the audience. He then entered the problems on the keypad of his teleprinter, which outputted the answers afterward. 1940s: Electronic Computers The first electronic computers were developed during the World War II, with the earliest of those being the Colossus. The Colossus was developed to decrypt secret German codes during the war. It used vacuum tubes and paper tape and could perform a number of Boolean logical operations. Another notable early electronic computer was nicknamed "The Baby" (officially known as the Manchester Small-Scale Experimental Machine). While the computer itself wasn’t remarkable—it was the first computer to use the Williams Tube, a type of random access memory (RAM) that used a cathode-ray tube. Some early electronic computers used decimal numeric systems (such as the ENIAC and the Harvard Mark 1), while others—like the Atanasoff-Berry Computer and the Colossus Mark 2—used binary systems. With the exception of the Atanasoff-Berry Computer, all the major models were programmable, either using punch cards, patch cables and switches, or through stored programs in memory. 1950s: The First Commercial Computers The first commercially available computers came in the 1950s. While computing up until this time had mainly focused on scientific, mathematical, and defense capabilities, new computers were designed for business functions, such as banking and accounting. The UNIVAC was the first commercial computer developed in the U.S., with its first unit delivered to the U.S. Census Bureau. It was the first mass-produced computer, with more than 45 units eventually produced and sold. The IBM 701 was another notable development in early commercial computing; it was the first mainframe computer produced by IBM. It was around the same time that the Fortran programming language was being developed (for the 704). A smaller IBM 650 was developed in the mid-1950s, and was popular due to its smaller size and footprint (it still weighed over 900kg, with a separate 1350kg power supply). Mid-1950s: Transistor Computers The development of transistors led to the replacement of vacuum tubes, and resulted in significantly smaller computers. In the beginning, they were less reliable than the vacuum tubes they replaced, but they also consumed significantly less power. These transistors also led to developments in computer peripherals. The first disk drive, the IBM 350 RAMAC, was the first of these introduced in 1956. Remote terminals also became more common with these second-generation computers. 1960s: The Microchip and the Microprocessor The microchip (or integrated circuit) is one of the most important advances in computing technology. Many overlaps in history existed between microchip-based computers and transistor-based computers throughout the 1960s, and even into the early 1970s. Micochips allowed the manufacturing of smaller computers. The microchip spurred the production of minicomputers and microcomputers, which were small and inexpensive enough for small businesses and even individuals to own. The microchip also led to the microprocessor, another breakthrough technology that was important in the development of the personal computer. There were three microprocessor designs that came out at about the same time. The first was produced by Intel (the 4004). Soon after, models from Texas Instruments (the TMS 1000) and Garret AiResearch (the Central Air Data Computer, or CADC) followed. 1970s: Personal Computers The first personal computers were built in the early 1970s. Most of these were limited-production runs, and worked based on small-scale integrated circuits and multi-chip CPUs.. The Altair 8800 was the first popular computer using a single-chip microprocessor. It was also sold in kit form to electronics hobbyists, meaning purchasers had to assemble their own computers. 1977 saw the rise of the "Trinity": the Commodore PET, the Apple II, and the Tandy Corporation’s TRS-80. These three computer models eventually went on to sell millions. 1980s-1990s: The Early Notebooks and Laptops One particularly notable development in the 1980s was the advent of the commercially available portable computer. The first of these was the Osborne 1, in 1981. It had a tiny 5" monitor and was large and heavy compared to modern laptops (weighing in at 23.5 pounds). Portable computers continued to develop, though, and eventually became streamlined and easily portable, as the notebooks we have today are. These early portable computers were portable only in the most technical sense of the word. Generally, they were anywhere from the size of a large electric typewriter to the size of a suitcase. The first laptop with a flip form factor, was produced in 1982, but the first portable computer that was actually marketed as a "laptop" was the Gavilan SC in 1983. Early models had monochrome displays, though there were color displays available starting in 1984 (the Commodore SX-64). Laptops grew in popularity as they became smaller and lighter. By 1988, displays had reached VGA resolution, and by 1993 they had 256-color screens. From there, resolutions and colors progressed quickly. Other hardware features added during the 1990s and early 2000s included high-capacity hard drives and optical drives. 2000s: The Rise of Mobile Computing Mobile computing is one of the most recent major milestones in the history of computers. Many smartphones today have higher processor speeds and more memory than desktop PCs had even ten years ago. With phones like the iPhone and the Android phones, it’s becoming possible to perform most of the functions once reserved for desktop PCs from anywhere. Mobile computing really got its start in the 1980s, with the pocket PCs of the era. These were something like a cross between a calculator, a small home computer and a PDA. They largely fell out of favor by the 1990s. During the 1990s, PDAs (Personal Digital Assistant) became popular. A number of manufacturers had models, including Apple and Palm. The main feature PDAs had that not all pocket PCs had was a touchscreen interface. PDAs are still manufactured and used today, though they’ve largely been replaced by smartphones. Smartphones have truly revolutionized mobile computing. Most basic computing functions can now be done on a smartphone, such as email, browsing the internet, and uploading photos and videos. Late 2000s: Netbooks Another recent progression in computing history is the development of netbook computers. Netbooks are smaller and more portable than standard laptops, while still being capable of performing most functions average computer users need (using the Internet, managing email, and using basic office programs). Some netbooks go as far as to have not only built-in WiFi capabilities, but also built-in mobile broadband connectivity options. One of the main advantages of netbooks is their lower cost. Some mobile broadband providers have even offered netbooks for free with an extended service contract. Comcast also had a promotion in 2009 that offered a free netbook when you signed up for their cable internet services. Most netbooks now come with Windows or Linux installed, and soon, there will be Android-based netbooks available from Asus and other manufacturers. The history of computing spans nearly two centuries at this point, much longer than most people realize. From the mechanical computers of the 1800s to the room-sized mainframes of the mid-20th century, all the way up to the netbooks and smartphones of today, computers have evolved radically throughout their history. The past 100 years have brought technological leaps and bounds to computing, and there’s no telling what the next 100 years might bring.

Cameron Chapman


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