Computer History and Development
Nothing epitomizes modern life better than the computer. For better or worse, computers have infiltrated every aspect of our society. Today computers do much more than simply compute: supermarket scanners calculate our grocery bill while keeping store inventory; computerized telephone switching centers play traffic cop to millions of calls and keep lines of communication untangled; and automatic teller machines (ATM) let us conduct banking transactions from virtually anywhere in the world. But where did all this technology come from and where is it heading? To fully understand and appreciate the impact computers have on our lives and promises they hold for the future, it is important to understand their evolution. Early Computing Machines and Inventors
The abacus, which emerged about 5,000 years ago in Asia Minor and is still in use today, may be considered the first computer. This device allows users to make computations using a system of sliding beads arranged on a rack. Early merchants used the abacus to keep trading transactions. But as the use of paper and pencil spread, particularly in Europe, the abacus lost its importance. It took nearly 12 centuries, however, for the next significant advance in computing devices to emerge. In 1642, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), the 18-year-old son of a French tax collector, invented what he called a numerical wheel calculator to help his father with his duties. This brass rectangular box, also called a Pascaline, used eight movable dials to add sums up to eight figures long. Pascal's device used a base of ten to accomplish this. For example, as one dial moved ten notches, or one complete revolution, it moved the next dial - which represented the ten's column - one place. When the ten's dial moved one revolution, the dial representing the hundred's place moved one notch and so on. The drawback to the Pascaline, of course, was its limitation to addition. In 1694, a German mathematician and philosopher, Gottfried Wilhem von Leibniz (1646-1716), improved the Pascaline by creating a machine that could also multiply. Like its predecessor, Leibniz's mechanical multiplier worked by a system of gears and dials. Partly by studying Pascal's original notes and drawings, Leibniz was able to refine his machine. The centerpiece of the machine was its stepped-drum gear design, which offered an elongated version of the simple flat gear. It wasn't until 1820, however, that mechanical calculators gained widespread use. Charles Xavier Thomas de Colmar, a Frenchman, invented a machine that could perform the four basic arithmetic functions. Colmar's mechanical calculator, the arithometer, presented a more practical approach to computing because it could add, subtract, multiply and divide. With its enhanced versatility, the arithometer was widely used up until the First World War. Although later inventors refined Colmar's calculator, together with fellow inventors Pascal and Leibniz, he helped define the age of mechanical computation. The real beginnings of computers as we know them today, however, lay with an English mathematics professor, Charles Babbage (1791-1871). Frustrated at the many errors he found while examining calculations for the Royal Astronomical Society, Babbage declared, "I wish to God these calculations had been performed by steam!" With those words, the automation of computers had begun. By 1812, Babbage noticed a natural harmony between machines and mathematics: machines were best at performing tasks repeatedly without mistake; while mathematics, particularly the production of mathematics tables, often required the simple repetition of steps. The problem centered on applying the ability of machines to the needs of mathematics. Babbage's first attempt at solving this problem was in 1822 when he proposed a machine to perform differential equations, called a Difference Engine. Powered by steam and large as a locomotive, the machine...
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