Computers are such an intrinsic part of our lives that we sometimes take them for granted. Yet, computer technology has changed monumentally, even in just the past few years. Our phones are now mini computers themselves. Our TV’s are computerized, and so are our cars. In some networked households, these devices can now talk to each other.
But when was the first computer invented? 1960? Or back in the Industrial Revolution? Who was first – Apple or IBM… or someone else? Was the computer first used for commercial or military purposes?
The history of the computer is fascinating, although arguably not as fascinating as what is yet to come. In honor of Computer Learning Month, we take a look both behind and ahead in this amazing field, in our two-part blog.
The History of the Computer
If you guessed that the first computer was built in 1950, or even 1850, you’re going to have to think back farther. Amazingly enough, the theory of mechanized calculation was actually introduced much earlier, in 1623, in notes jotted by German astronomy professor, Wilhelm Schickard. Unable to make his arithmetic machine work, Schickard abandoned the project, but then, 19 years later, Blaise Pascal built the Pascal's Calculator, to help with the time-consuming arithmetic required in his father’s work as a tax commissioner.
Jump ahead a couple centuries and we find Charles Babbage, often referred to as "father of computing." Babbage was an English mathematician who invented the first successful automatic calculator, back in 1849. This machine was so big it needed a steam engine to power it, and his design was too sophisticated to actually be built in his lifetime. The first working Babbage Engine was constructed in 2002, following Babbage’s original drawings, 153 years after it was designed.
Of course, staggering advancements in computer science took place in the years between Babbage’s initial design and the historian’s project that brought it to life. Since the complete history of computing could fill volumes, we’d like to bring you a much-condensed timeline, which we compiled with the help of information from computerhistory.com. If this topic intrigues you as much as it does us, check out their website for more details.
Timeline of the Modern Computer
1854 – George Boole writes The Laws of Thought, introducing Boolean logic, and hence laying the foundation for the Information Age. Boolean logic is a form of algebra in which all values are reduced to either TRUE or FALSE – a key contributor to computer science, which uses a binary numbering system in which each bit has a value of either 1 or 0.
1937 – Bell Lab’s scientist George Stibutz uses telephone relays to build the “Model K” circuit on his kitchen table, as a proof of concept for applying Boolean logic to computer design. This invention led to the construction of the relay-based Model I Complex Calculator in 1939.
1939 – Hewlett-Packard is founded in Palo Alto, California, and introduces the HP 200A Audio Oscillator, which Walt Disney used to test recording and speaker systems for theatres showing “Fantasia” in 1940.
1940 – Bell Lab’s George Stibutz demonstrates the Complex Number Calculator, remotely performing calculations from a Teletype terminal – probably the first example of remote access computing.
1941 – Computer pioneer Alan Turing builds the British Bombe to decrypt Nazi ENIGMA-based military communications during World War II.
1944 – British engineer Tommy Flowers designs the Colossus to break the complex Lorenz ciphers used by the Nazis, thus significantly shortening the war. This machine’s existence was not made public until the 1970s.
1946 – The ENIAC is unveiled, a computing system built at the University of Pennsylvania that uses electronic instead of electromechanical technology, and is thus over 1,000 times faster than any previous computer.
1948 – The first computer program runs on the Manchester "Baby."
1950 – Computers theoretically get smaller and cheaper, as Edmund Berkeley designs the Simon 1 using relay logic. It cost about $600 to build and occupied about 4 cubic feet.
1951 - Commercial computing attracts widespread public attention, as the Univac 1, manufactured by Remington Rand, was purchased by utility and insurance companies, as well as the U.S. military.
1954 – The IBM 650 is the first mass-produced computer, selling 450 in just one year. This computer was a hit in universities, where students first learned programming.
1956 –Researchers at MIT begin experimenting with direct keyboard input to computers.
1958 – SAGE is the first large-scale computer communications network, connecting 23 sites in the U.S. and Canada.
1961 – IBM´s 7000 series mainframes are the company´s first to use transistors.
1962 – The LINC, designed at MIT, is an early prototype of a PC (personal computer). The LINC was later commercialized by DEC as the LINC-8.
1964 – The CDC Supercomputer becomes the fastest computer in the world, performing up to 3 million instructions per second.
1971 – HP introduces their handheld calculator – small enough to fit in an engineer’s pocket. Also this year, Intel introduces the microprocessor and Xerox introduces the laser printer.
1973 – IBM develops SCAMP – the Special Computer APL Machine Portable, their first PC.
1974 – The Xerox Alto breaks new ground with a graphical user interface (GUI) using windows, icons, and a mouse. This invention was Apple’s inspiration for the Lisa and Macintosh computers.
1976 – You’ve heard of this one: the iconic Cray supercomputer, which cost about $10 million to build and was used in national defense work and weather forecasting.
1976 – 1976 was a big year, when, also bringing us Steve Wozniak’s Apple-1, marketed by his friend Steve Jobs.
1977 – Apple II was released, with millions sold between 1977 and 1993, making it one of the longest-lived lines of PCs. Apple gave away thousands of Apple IIs to schools, thus introducing computers to a new generation of students.
1979 – The Atari game console hits the market.
1982 – Sun Microsystems was founded, helping to cement the model of a workstation with an Ethernet interface.
1983 – Apple’s Lisa introduced – the first commercial PC with a graphical user interface (GUI).
1984 – Hello Mac!
1986 - Compaq beats IBM to the market with the Deskpro 386, using Intel´s new 80386 chip, which gave PCs as much speed and power as older mainframes and minicomputers.
1989 – The Mac goes portable.
1993 – The Intel Pentium arrives – the fifth generation of the ‘x86’ line of microprocessors from Intel, the basis for the IBM PC and its clones.
1996 – Palm introduces the Palm Pilot as the first PDA – a personal digital assistant that could connect and sync with a PC or Mac.
2000 – Japan's SoftBank introduces the first camera phone, the J-Phone J-SH04; a Sharp-manufactured digital phone with an integrated camera offering a maximum resolution of 0.11 megapixels.
2007 – Another big year, in which we first saw the Kindle electronic reading device and of course the world-famous iPhone by Apple – a combination of web browser, music player, and cell phone. The iPhone was also the first phone to enable downloading of apps.
2010 – Even our youngest readers were alive when the iPad came out!
2015 – The Apple Watch puts computers on our wrist.
The Future of Computers
Come back next week for Part 2 of this captivating conversation – when we look ahead to near-future technology such as quantum, optical and DNA computers, and computers so small we won’t be able to see them.
Will You Bring the World the Next BIG THING in Computing?
If you’re fascinated with technology and eager to try your hand at innovation, try flexing your technical muscles at Envision’s summer career camps for high school visionaries:
NYLF Engineering and Technology – Start building a better future over 8 incredible days on the campus of a top-ranked engineering school, where you’ll gain hands-on experience with state-of-the-art technology and apply your engineering skills to construct sustainable solutions to some of the world's most pressing problems. Workshops include activities like programing a microprocessor to fly a model helicopter.
NYLF Business Innovation – Held on the campus of the prestigious Yale University, this program helps you kick-start your career as an entrepreneur and innovator. Learn from business gurus, and compete against other business-minded high school students in a “shark tank” experience.
Game & Technology Academy – Level-up your game design skills while using the latest next-gen design technologies in state-of-the-art labs and learning from game design and technology professionals and subject matter experts.
Younger students (elementary and middle grades) can check out NYLF Pathways to STEM and NYLF Explore STEM.