The History of Computers in a Nutshell

Apr 21 2010 by Cameron Chapman | 44 Comments

The History of Computers in a Nutshell

Computers have wedged themselves into every facet of our lives—they are what we would use as the symbolic representation of the modern world.

But 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. In this article, we explore the development and progression of computers.

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 include the Difference Engine No. 1, the Analytical Engine, and the Difference Engine No. 2.

Difference Engine No. 2The Difference Engine was constructed from designs by Charles Babbage. Photo by Allan J. Cronin

These early computers were never completed during Babbage’s lifetime, but their complete designs were preserved. Eventually, one was built in 2002.

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.

Z1Z1 was used to take the U.S. Census in 1890.

Other important mechanical computers are the Automatic Electrical Tabulating Machine—which was used in the U.S. Census of 1890 to handle data from more than 62 million Americans—and the first binary computer: Konrad Zuse’s Z1, which was developed in 1938 and was the precursor to the first electro-mechanical computer.

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—such as the Differential Analyzer built in 1930—used purely mechanical internals but employed electric motors to power them.

These early electro-mechanical computers were either analog or were digital—such as the Model K and the Complex Number Calculator, both produced by George Stibitz.

Stibitz, by the way, 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.

Z3Z3 used floating-point numbers which improved the accuracy of calculations.

It was during the development of these early electro-mechanical computers that many of the technologies and concepts still used today were first developed. The Z3, a descendent of the Z1 developed by Konrad Zuse, was one such pioneering computer. The Z3 used floating-point numbers in computations and was the first program-controlled digital computer.

Other electro-mechanical computers included Bombes, which were used during WWII to decrypt German codes.

1940s: Electronic Computers

ColossusColossus—whose name was fitting for its size—was developed during World War II.

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 (e.g. true/false, yes/no) logical operations.

Williams TubeWilliams Tube used RAM for its computations.

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 J. Lyons Company, which was a British catering firm, invested heavily in some of these early computers. In 1951, LEO (Lyons Electronic Office) became the first computer to run a regular routine office job. By November of that year, they were using the LEO to run a weekly bakery valuations job.

UNIVACThe UNIVAC was the first mass-produced computer.

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).

IBM 650The IBM 650 would cost you $4 million dollars if you bought it today.

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).

They cost the equivalent of almost $4 million today (adjusted for inflation).

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.

RAMACIBM 350 RAMAC used disk drives.

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. Photo by Ioan Sameli

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.

The first processors were 4-bit, but 8-bit models quickly followed by 1972.

16-bit models were produced in 1973, and 32-bit models soon followed. AT&T Bell Labs created the first fully 32-bit single-chip microprocessor, which used 32-bit buses, 32-bit data paths, and 32-bit addresses, in 1980.

The first 64-bit microprocessors were in use in the early 1990s in some markets, though they didn’t appear in the PC market until the early 2000s.

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 Commodore PET was a personal computer in the 70s. Photo by Tomislav Medak

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.

Clones of this machine quickly cropped up, and soon there was an entire market based on the design and architecture of the 8800. It also spawned a club based around hobbyist computer builders, the Homebrew Computer Club.

1977 saw the rise of the "Trinity" (based on a reference in Byte magazine): the Commodore PET, the Apple II, and the Tandy Corporation’s TRS-80. These three computer models eventually went on to sell millions.

These early PCs had between 4kB and 48kB of RAM. The Apple II was the only one with a full-color, graphics-capable display, and eventually became the best-seller among the trinity, with more than 4 million units sold.

1980s-1990s: The Early Notebooks and Laptops

One particularly notable development in the 1980s was the advent of the commercially available portable computer.

Osborne 1 was small and portable enough to transport. Photo by Tomislav Medak

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 Gavilan SC was the first PC to be sold as a "laptop".

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.

Laptops typically come in three categories, as shown by these Macbooks. Photo by Benjamin Nagel

Laptops are generally broken down into a three different categories:

  • Desktop replacements
  • Standard notebooks
  • Subnotebooks

Desktop replacements are usually larger, with displays of 15-17" and performance comparable with some better desktop computers.

Standard notebooks usually have displays of 13-15" and are a good compromise between performance and portability.

Subnotebooks, including netbooks, have displays smaller than 13" and fewer features than standard notebooks.

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 Motorola Droid, it’s becoming possible to perform most of the functions once reserved for desktop PCs from anywhere.

2000s: The Rise of Mobile ComputingThe Droid is a smartphone capable of basic computing tasks such as emailing and web browsing.

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.

NetbooksThe Asus Eee PC 700 was the first netbook to enter mass production.

The first mass-produced netbook was the Asus Eee PC 700, released in 2007. They were originally released in Asia, but were released in the US not long afterward.

Other manufacturers quickly followed suit, releasing additional models throughout 2008 and 2009.

One of the main advantages of netbooks is their lower cost (generally ranging from around US$200-$600). 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.

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About the Author

Cameron Chapman is a professional web and graphic designer with over 6 years of experience in the industry. She’s also written for numerous blogs such as Smashing Magazine and Mashable. You can find her personal web presence at Cameron Chapman On Writing. If you’d like to connect with her, check her out on Twitter.

44 Comments

Blasting Mind

April 21st, 2010

Very nice post. I never thought that computers way way back were so huge!

Luigi

April 21st, 2010

WOW! This is a wonderful evolution.

Ernesto Schnack

April 21st, 2010

Great article! I recently went to a Konrad Zuse exhibition with my Dad, he actually used some of those machines as a student. He told they’d have to work out a problem, hand it to an engineer, and wait till next day for the answer. Oh how the times change…

Drew

April 21st, 2010

Another of the first notebooks was the Husky (http://www.old-computers.com/museum/computer.asp?c=471) and Husky Hunter (http://www.old-computers.com/museum/computer.asp?c=285) The hunter was ruggedized and waterproof and used by the British Army in 1983.

The photographs above track many of the happy points in my career. Thanks for giving me a smile today.

Sirupsen

April 21st, 2010

You can even go back to the 1660s, where Blaise Pascal made his machine. There was a guy before Pascal, but I can not remember his name.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blaise_Pascal

Drew

April 21st, 2010

Just reading the article again, one trend we can see certainly in the last few years is convergence of technologies, phones with cameras and music players and more processing power than took man to the moon and I’m thinking of the iPhone in particular.

It’s fantastic to think that during my career this technology has advanced from having one computer in a large room to having one computer in your back pocket. I’ve never lost that sense of awe and amazement, where next, what next, I can’t wait!

Jordan Walker

April 21st, 2010

Wonderful article, amazing how computing is getting smaller and smaller.

John Paul Aguiar

April 21st, 2010

I don’t miss that ms dos black screen ugly green letters..lol

My Comodore 64 baby..lol

Cook

April 21st, 2010

wow..this is splendid stuff..loved it

James

April 21st, 2010

If computers were still on punch cards in the 90′s my life would be a whole lot different.

Tobbi

April 21st, 2010

Great article, thanks.

Elizabeth Perry

April 21st, 2010

Oh, well done, you’ve managed to erase both Ada Lovelace, Babbage’s collaborator (and arguably the first programmer), and Grace Hopper, who was the first to develop a programming language compiler, which led directly to COBOL. (And I’m not even going to stress how ENIAC was programmed by not one, not two, but six women, Betty Jean Jennings, Betty Snyder, Fran Bilas, Kay McNulty, Marlyn Wescoff, and Ruth Lichterman.) Granted, you only mention three individuals in this entire post, but they’re all male — 80% of the staff at Bletchley Park were women. Please don’t erase women from the history of computing.

zack

April 21st, 2010

Follow-up article: History of Nutshells in a Computer.

Jacob Gube

April 21st, 2010

@zack: Oh! Great idea for the next post, thanks!

Nathan

April 21st, 2010

wow, you got yerself a raging feminist on yer hands! lol.

WebGuide4U

April 22nd, 2010

Charles babbage build a computer in 1944 and after it most of the people get engaged in it and the size of the computer decreases and now you can use it as easily as no one can think in the late 1950′s.
In the end i like to say great article on history of computers and what will come out next in computers still thinking ?

e11world

April 22nd, 2010

This is a very informative post. It is great to refresh our memory on how computers and technology evolved over time. I can see holograms integrating into smart phones in the next 3 years.

mprove

April 23rd, 2010

Nice – just one question regarding Z1. How could it be used for the US census in 1890 when it was invented 48 years later in Germany? Something seems to be mixed up here.

Matt

April 23rd, 2010

Very interesting post. Nice to throw a peek back in the history of computers. Thank you Cameron.

Paul

April 24th, 2010

Nice – just one question regarding Z1. How could it be used for the US census in 1890 when it was invented 48 years later in Germany? Something seems to be mixed up here.

Rick

April 24th, 2010

This is a very informative post. It is great to refresh our memory on how computers and technology evolved over time. I can see holograms integrating into smart phones in the next 3 years.

Patrick

April 24th, 2010

If computers were still on punch cards in the 90′s my life would be a whole lot different.

Dave

April 25th, 2010

Charles babbage build a computer in 1944 and after it most of the people get engaged in it and the size of the computer decreases and now you can use it as easily as no one can think in the late 1950′s.
In the end i like to say great article on history of computers and what will come out next in computers still thinking ?

Simon

April 25th, 2010

This is a very informative post. It is great to refresh our memory on how computers and technology evolved over time. I can see holograms integrating into smart phones in the next 3 years.

David

April 26th, 2010

If computers were still on punch cards in the 90′s my life would be a whole lot different.

Dave

April 26th, 2010

This is a very informative post. It is great to refresh our memory on how computers and technology evolved over time. I can see holograms integrating into smart phones in the next 3 years.

MarkSpizer

May 3rd, 2010

great post as usual!

brahma

May 19th, 2010

nice one, This is a very informative post. It is great to refresh our memory on how computers and technology evolved.

Silver

June 16th, 2010

In the list you forgot to add the italian computer “Olivetti ELEA”.
“Elea” was a computer “Olivetti” developed in the mid-fifties.
The system, made entirely with high-performance transistors was conceived, planned and developed by a small group of researchers led by Mario Tchou.
Was launched only a few months after the release of 2002′s Siemens and several months before the first IBM transistor.
ELEA The acronym stood for “ELaboratore Elettronico Aritmetico” (in english: “computer arithmetic” (later changed to “Automatico” for marketing reasons) and was chosen with reference to the homonymous colony of Magna Grecia, home of the Eleatic school of philosophy.
The Elea 9000, the grater Computer for proportion and power, had three generations:
Elea 9001 (Zero Machine) prototype valve mounted free wires with some germanium transistors dedicated to tape management.
The system was completed in spring 1957 and was later sent to Ivrea where for six years controlled the production warehouses Olivetti.
The car was a prototype and its aging occurred during a year and a half of actual exercise.
Elea 9002 (1V machine) was a prototype tube with printed circuits and optimized design much faster than the predecessor and transistors
utilizing silicon for the management of tape drive. The machine is used as a test for the transistors, they are more reliable and economic valves.
Elea 9003 (1T machine), designed entirely in transistor technology since October 1957 Diode-transistor logic, was the first fully transistorized commercial computer world. The latter, designed by Ettore Sottsass, was really the only computer sold in about 40 individuals, of which the first (9003/01 Elea) was installed at Marzotto and second (Elea 9003/02) to Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena that later it will be donated Itis Enrico Fermi “Bibbiena (AR), which is still used for educational purposes. The computing power (approximately 8 to 10,000 instructions per second) was higher than that of competitors for several years and uptime – as with all computers of the time – was less than 50%, particularly in the tape device.

JB

July 9th, 2010

Stumbled across your article and am very impressed; so much so, that I’m going to have my computer students use if for reference and build a “quick quiz” around your information. Thank you!
One fun fact you might not know; the Department of Defense was on the cutting edge of developing computers during the WWII, which is when Admiral Grace Murray Hopper was a pioneer in the computing profession. She is known as the person who coined the phrase “debugging”; because moths were attracted to the glow of the vaccum tubes, they would fly into the computer’s tubes, causing the computer to stop working when they died. Admiral Hopper would remove them, debugging the computer, to get it working again.

Vaiiy

October 6th, 2010

I am an chinese student. I learn a lot from what your write. thanks l am a fresher.

purity

February 4th, 2011

You have contributed much towards my daily class assignments.I am a Kenyan student,a second year now.THANK YOU

purity

February 4th, 2011

how

fabio

February 22nd, 2011

GOOD Job!
Nicely done!!!!

Saurabh singh

August 29th, 2011

its really a good gob.

jake

October 2nd, 2011

awsome it just wow it really helps alout.

jake

October 4th, 2011

um butit does have every thing but it looks like A LITLE TOO MUCH plus if your doing a five page essay ho will it fit.

jake

October 4th, 2011

but besseids that it helped.

jared

October 6th, 2011

this article is aight

dhruv

November 7th, 2011

ooooooohhhhhh!!!

kiki

August 30th, 2012

kudos and nice article,i knew computer were so big and large in size but i was unable to see their diagram.but these ur article gave me insight on wat they were,i cant stop laughing…

Mokua

October 9th, 2012

Quite good , lets also see evolution of software.

APRIL ROSE JUANES

March 2nd, 2013

THANK YOU FOR THAT WEBSITE ESPECIALLY TO THE AUTHOR…
CAUSE I CAN DO MY PROJECT MORE EASIER…
THANK YOU ONCE AGAIN

~BY APRIL IN PHILIPPINES

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