Most of us couldn’t imagine life today without computers.
They are an integral part of nearly every technological advance we
enjoy, from our familiar desktop models to the computers that keep our
cars running, and even the computers that power lifesaving hospital
equipment. The history of the computer is a fascinating story that few
are aware of, even as they sit down in front of their personal
descendents of the first computer. Do you know who invented the
computer? How about the history of the computer in its earliest days?
Computers weren’t always the blazing fast machines enabling us to
retrieve a mountain of knowledge at our fingertips. In fact, the first
computer was very different from the computers of today.
Inventor Charles Babbage did not invent the computer. However, he was
the first to conceptualize and actually design a model that would be
fully programmable and functioning, way back in 1837—if only he’d had
the time, the finances and the resources to complete it. Unfortunately,
Babbage could not complete construction of his design in his lifetime,
and so the would-be first computer walked the doom path that many
computer-related engineering projects still follow today: inadequate
funds and lack of time.
So, who invented the computer? The machine that is widely considered
to be the predecessor of modern computers was known as ENIAC: Electronic
Numerical Integrator And Computer. ENIAC was developed by the United
States Army during World War II, with the purpose of calculating
ballistic firing tables. No single person can claim credit for the
invention and development of ENIAC; like most computer projects, it was
a team effort. However, two of the key people behind ENIAC’s creation
were University of Pennsylvania professors J. Presper Eckert and John
There has been quite a bit of debate over whether ENIAC truly was the
first computer. Many consider the Atanasoff Berry Computer (ABC) to be
the true first computer, as its development preceded that of ENIAC; and
indeed, Mauchley utilized some of the ideas behind it to develop ENIAC.
The Atanasoff Berry Computer was constructed at Iowa State University
during the period from 1937 to 1942, by Dr. John Vincent Atanasoff and
Clifford E. Berry. This computer was the first to separate computation
and memory (processing and storage, in modern computers); use binary
digits to represent all data; and perform every calculation using
electronics rather than wheels and ratchets. The ABC used punch cards to
input data rather than the keyboards we know today; and it stored data
in memory drums. Electronic operation was achieved through the use of
1943 saw the commissioned beginning of the ENIAC project, and the
first machine was unveiled on February 14, 1946. This was an important
date in the history of the computer, as it was the first time a working
computer was announced to the public. The total cost of the ENIAC
project was around $500,000. The final product made headlines because of
its sheer size: ENIAC took up an entire room and weighed in at nearly 30
tons. The components involved in the construction of ENIAC were also
impressively immense—17,468 vacuum tubes, 70,000 resistors, 10,000
capacitors, 1,500 relays and 7,200 crystal diodes made the monstrous
computer tick. Like the ABC, ENIAC received input through punch cards,
and did not have the means to store programs.
However, the machine did suit its purposes—when it worked. Because of
the sensitivity of the vacuum tubes to heat, during its initial
operation the ENIAC was down 50 percent of the time due to blown vacuum
tubes, which occurred at a rate of several tubes per day. Those of us
who use modern computers cannot conceive of the hassle of owning a
computer that only worked half the time! However, ENIAC’s users soon
discovered that by keeping the computer running constantly, the intense
heat that occurred during boot-up and shut-down was prevented, and soon
lowered the rate of vacuum tube blow-out to one every two days. Could
you imagine the price of ENIAC’s electric bill?
The day-to-day operation of ENIAC was carried out, surprisingly
enough, by women—an almost unheard-of circumstance in the 1940’s. Six
women were responsible for the bulk of ENIAC’s programming: Jean
Jennings Bartik, Frances Snyder Holberton, Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum,
Frances Bilas Spence, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, and Kathleen McNulty
Mauchly Antonelli. These six super-women were inducted into the Women in
Technology International Hall of Fame in 1997 to commemorate their
contribution to the history of the computer.
Several improvements to ENIAC were made over the years, and the
machine remained in operation until 1955. However, the room-sized
computer design was never repeated, and the next step in the history of
the computer came with EDSAC (Electronic Delay Storage Automatic
Calculator), which more closely resembled today’s computers—in
operation, at least. The EDSAC, a British invention developed by Maurice
Wilkes and his team at the University of Cambridge, actually resembled a
series of oversized metal abacus (lacking, of course, the moveable
components). The EDSAC was the first practical computer, allowing for
storage capability and the use of program applications to carry out
different operations. Similar to ENIAC, the EDSAC made use of vacuum
tubes, but used punched tape instead of punch cards for input purposes.
It also used mercury delay lines for memory, an improvement over ENIAC.
Perhaps no one can say with certainty who invented the computer.
However, the history of the computer is an interesting look at the
ingenuity of humans in our pursuit of knowledge. Whether we consider the
ABC, the ENIAC, or the EDSAC the great-grandfathers of the machines that
now grace desktops and homes around the world, we know that many people
contributed the ideas, the research, the technology and the inspiration
to forge one of humanity’s greatest inventions: the computer. Where
would we be today without it? Though it’s doubtful that we would be
scratching calculations in the mud with sharp sticks, our global
community is certainly a more exciting place to live thanks to the
pioneers who developed the very first computers.
Article barrowed from historyofthecomputer.net. No author name given.