Topics: Computer, Parallel computing, Supercomputer Pages: 12 (3710 words) Published: August 24, 2013
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A Brief History of Computer Technology

A complete history of computing would include a multitude of diverse devices such as the ancient Chinese abacus, the Jacquard loom (1805) and Charles Babbage's ``analytical engine'' (1834). It would also include discussion of mechanical, analog and digital computing architectures. As late as the 1960s, mechanical devices, such as the Marchant calculator, still found widespread application in science and engineering. During the early days of electronic computing devices, there was much discussion about the relative merits of analog vs. digital computers. In fact, as late as the 1960s, analog computers were routinely used to solve systems of finite difference equations arising in oil reservoir modeling. In the end, digital computing devices proved to have the power, economics and scalability necessary to deal with large scale computations. Digital computers now dominate the computing world in all areas ranging from the hand calculator to the supercomputer and are pervasive throughout society. Therefore, this brief sketch of the development of scientific computing is limited to the area of digital, electronic computers.

The evolution of digital computing is often divided into generations. Each generation is characterized by dramatic improvements over the previous generation in the technology used to build computers, the internal organization of computer systems, and programming languages. Although not usually associated with computer generations, there has been a steady improvement in algorithms, including algorithms used in computational science. The following history has been organized using these widely recognized generations as mileposts. 3.1 The Mechanical Era (1623-1945)

The idea of using machines to solve mathematical problems can be traced at least as far as the early 17th century. Mathematicians who designed and implemented calculators that were capable of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division included Wilhelm Schickhard, Blaise Pascal and Gottfried Leibnitz.

The first multi-purpose, i.e. programmable, computing device was probably Charles Babbage's Difference Engine, which was begun in 1823 but never completed. A more ambitious machine was the Analytical Engine. It was designed in 1842, but unfortunately it also was only partially completed by Babbage. Babbage was truly a man ahead of his time: many historians think the major reason he was unable to complete these projects was the fact that the technology of the day was not reliable enough. In spite of never building a complete working machine, Babbage and his colleagues, most notably Ada, Countess of Lovelace, recognized several important programming techniques, including conditional branches, iterative loops and index variables.

A machine inspired by Babbage's design was arguably the first to be used in computational science. George Scheutz read of the difference engine in 1833, and along with his son Edvard Scheutz began work on a smaller version. By 1853 they had constructed a machine that could process 15-digit numbers and calculate fourth-order differences. Their machine won a gold medal at the Exhibition of Paris in 1855, and later they sold it to the Dudley Observatory in Albany, New York, which used it to calculate the orbit of Mars. One of the first commercial uses of mechanical computers was by the US Census Bureau, which used punch-card equipment designed by Herman Hollerith to tabulate data for the 1890 census. In 1911 Hollerith's company merged with a competitor to found the corporation which in 1924 became International Business Machines.

3.2 First Generation Electronic Computers (1937-1953)

Three machines have been promoted at various times as the first electronic computers. These machines used electronic switches, in the form of vacuum tubes, instead of electromechanical relays. In...
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