A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE COMPUTER

November 24, 2020

Do you ever look at a computer and think ‘Wow, how did we get to this point?’

We look at them every day but often take them for granted.

The last 50+ years have been marked by enormous technological advancement in the area of computing. We thought it would be a good idea to do a brief history.

We won’t be covering everything. You can read a book for that, if you want.

Instead, we’ll do a general overview; The main points and some of the key developments that got us to where we are today.

So, without further ado…

WHEN DID IT ALL START?

We could pick any number of starting points for our history.

We could talk about things like Abacuses, slide rules and other historical tools that made some kind of calculation using mechanics.

That’s essentially how ‘computing’ started. They were very basic calculators.

There’s also what is often considered ‘the father of the computer’ – ‘The Babbage Difference Engine’, created by Charles Babbage in the early 19th century.

This was a large analogue machine made up of thousands of moving parts that took an input via punched cards and ‘printed’ the result of a calculation onto another piece of paper.

It was considered to be years ahead of its time and should Babbage have received more financial and political support from the government, there’s no telling what he could have achieved.

THE BEGINNING OF DIGITAL

A major starting point in the history of computing was the creation of a company by two men, Bill Hewlett and David Packard, in 1939.

Yes, that’s right. Mr H and Mr P. And not the sauce.

Their first product, an audio oscillator which went on to be used as test recording equipment for Walt Disney Pictures, was incredibly influential. However, the company didn’t actually manufacture their own computer, the HP 2116A, until 1966.

Around this time, in 1941, Konrad Zuse developed the Z3, an early computer which performs floating point binary arithmetic and has a 22-bit word length.

Some of the earliest examples of computing technology are in decoding machines such as the British Bombe conceived by Alan Turing and the Colossus at Bletchley park. This was the world’s first electronic digital programmable computer.

The role they played in decoding enemy ciphers during WWII had an enormous impact on the outcome of the war, although the machine’s existence was not made public until the 1970’s.

Colossus – Bletchley Park

MASS PRODUCTION OF COMPUTERS LED BY IBM

IBM who had been in business since the early 20th century entered the large-scale computer market in 1953. They would go on to dominate this market in later years.

In 1954, students at universities were learning programming on IBM’s first mass produced computer the IBM 650. In 1961 IBM manufactured the 1401 which uses transistors instead of vacuum tube technology in their machines.

By the mid 1960’s half of all computers in the world were 1401’s.

IBM would not only lead the way in the creation of mass-produced computers but were also heavily involved in other forms of computing.

In conjunction with American Airlines, they would develop SABRE, a computerised reservation system, that would change the game for flight reservations.

IBM 1401

THINGS GET SMALLER

The release of the first microprocessor, the Intel 4004, in 1971, was instrumental in the explosion of commercial and personal computers.

We now take for granted that computers have enough processing power to show us what we type on screen in real time.

But when the Xerox Parc Alto was released in 1974, the idea of a screen that you actually use to type out words and read email, was pretty novel.

This computer, which could also share files and print out documents on a Xerox printer, was a key inspiration for Apple’s Lisa and Macintosh computers.

There was still a long way to go of course. Released in 1975, the MITS Altair 8800, which was developed with the help of a certain Bill Gates, came with 256 bytes of memory.

It could be expanded to a whoing 64 KB though!

Commodore PET

THE FIRST BITE OF THE APPLE

One of the most significant advancements in modern computing was the birth of Apple.

Now one of the biggest companies in the world, it started with two friends releasing a hobbyist computer kit called the Apple 1 in 1976.

They released the Apple 2, a ready to use computer for consumers, a year later. It had a keyboard, a power supply and when connected to a TV set, produced colour graphics.

Millions were sold between ’76 and ’93 making it one of the longest-lived lines of personal computer.

Other personal computers from other manufacturers arrived that year such as the TRS – 80, the Atari 800 and the Commodore PET, which came with either 4KB or 8KB of memory.

Apple Macintosh

COMPUTERS GET BETTER

The Apple Macintosh was released in 1984. The famous super bowl commercial which referenced Orwell’s novel and appeared to take a not-so-subtle dig at rival IBM, became almost as iconic as the computer itself.

This was the first successful mouse driven computer, the MacPaint software showing off its creative capabilities.

Steve Jobs left Apple soon after and created the NeXT Cube (which Tim Berners-Lee used to create the World Wide Web). This PC and it’s OpenStep operating system, which Apple subsequently bought, would be the foundation of the new MacOS.

Microsoft released their Windows OS in 1985 and they would soon go on to have a dominant share of the Operating system market. However, they wouldn’t actually create their own hardware until the release of the Xbox games console in 2001 and the Surface series in 2012.

Computers weren’t just getting smaller though. As networks and online systems grew, the physical infrastructure required to support them also had to grow.

Intel’s Touchstone Delta Supercomputer system which came online in 1990, would serve as the model for several other multi-processor systems in the world.

THE INVENTION OF THE LAPTOP

Laptops began to enter the market in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

Obviously, Apple were in there, but there were developments from other manufacturers providing serious competition.

The launch of the Sony VAIO series in 1996 marked the entry of Japan into the global consumer computer market. These were aimed at communications and audio-visual consumers and were distinguished by their innovative audio-visual capabilities.

IBM’s ThinkPad would go on to become an incredibly successful line of laptops, particularly in the business world.

This was sold along with the rest of IBM’s computer business to Chinese manufacturer Lenovo in 2005. With this deal they became the largest manufacturer of PC’s in the world and still are.

COMPUTERS IN EVERYTHING

We now live in a computer centric world. Technically there’s computers everywhere and we talk less about hardware and more about the software using it.

From Google to PayPal, some of the biggest companies in the world today are not hardware manufacturers but software creators.

There are still advancements in computing hardware of course. Not only do we have computers in our phones but increasingly in watches.

Data storage is in the cloud and everyday objects like lights, speakers and curtains are being controlled through the internet.

The question is, what’s next?

Apple Watch

WE’RE JUST AN IT COMPANY

We’re probably not the right people to answer that question but we’d sure love to find out.

Computing is now so big that we couldn’t possibly know everything there is to know. Although we’d like to think some members of our team could do a pretty good job of answering your computer general knowledge questions.

We mainly focus on a few specific business-related IT topics.

If you want to know more about the cloud, accounting software and cyber security for your business, give our team a call.  

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