Historical Reference Points in the Computer Industry

Historical Reference Points in the Computer Industry

James O. Hicks Jr. provides a fascinating outline of the early developments in the data processing field by noting the abacus as the first known device capable of making calculations, something so fundamental to the development of today’s computer industry. Whereas the Greeks and Romans used the abacus in ancient times, the Chinese made significant improvements to it. The next major introduction into the field of calculations occurred in 1642, when a French mathematician, Blaise Pascal, developed a “gear-driven” mechanical calculator capable of addition, subtraction, and multiplication. Twenty-nine years later, in 1671, a German mathematician, Gottfried Leibnitz, improved upon Pascal’s design, and his new mechanical calculator could offer both division and the ability to determine square roots.The concept of performing calculations from beads to abacus to the use of mechanical wheels was fundamental to the modern computer industry’s development.

The next major historical contributions occurred in the early 1800s, when Joseph Jacquard developed a loom for production of fabric and clothing. Significant to the eventual emergence of a modern computer industry was Jacquard’s use of “punched cards” as the control mechanism in his loom. By sequencing the punched cards, the loom could produce a cast number of patterns and designs. When the punched cards for a particular pattern were repeated, the same pattern would automatically be repeated. Thus, in effect, Jacquard’s punched cards were the program for the loom. In 1812, Charles Babbage, an English mathematician, visualized that many of the principles of Jacquard’s loom and its use of punched cards could be applied to numerical computation. Babbage’s very important observation focused on the use of punched cards as computing steps that were stored on the card in advance of computation, and this allowed a machine to process data totally unaided. Babbage’s observation and work were responsible for the first development of the concept of the “stored program” for data processing. This is precisely the capability that differentiates computers from calculators, and Babbage called his first machine a difference engine and designed it to calculate logarithm tables. The major components of Babbage’s analytical engine were as follows:

• Input and output devices
• An arithmetic unit to perform calculations
• A memory (punched cards) to store the calculations

As a result of his work, many regard Charles Babbage as the first person to propose the concept of the computer.

An important contributor to Babbage’s research was Augusta Ada Byron, the daughter of Lord Byron, the renowned English poet. Ada Byron was an accomplished mathematician, and she analyzed and improved many of Babbage’s concepts. As a result of her work in developing and programming the mathematical tables for Babbage’s analytical engine, she has been recognized as the first programmer. In fact, the programming language ADA is named in her honor. It is interesting to note that years later, the U.S. Department of Defense favored a substantial number of their applications to be based in what obviously was an improved ADA programming system.

Additional improvements in the punched cards were forthcoming by the late 1870s, and Henry Metcalfe discovered a need to reorganize a costaccounting system that would take records out of the leather board folios in use at the time and allow a more effective way to retrieve information from the ledgers by transferring accounting records from ledgers to punched cards. These cards could be sorted and information more easily and quickly obtained than by the conventional accounting ledgers. Metcalfe developed a coding scheme and unit records to specify the flow of data. Ten years later, in 1880, Herman Hollerith, a statistician at the U.S. Census Bureau, followed Metcalfe’s ideas and began experimenting with punched cards for their use in data processing for the 1880 U.S. Census. Hollerith designed a tabulating machine that used the machine-readable punched cards, and within six years, he founded a company that, by 1911, merged with three other companies forming the Computing Tabulation Recording Company, known then as CTR. In 1924, the CTR Company was renamed as the International Business Machines Corporation and emerged as IBM.

The next refinement occurred in 1908 by James Powers, who refined Hollerith’s machine by developing a sorting machine with tabulators that were used in the 1910 Census. Powers also formed a company he named the Powers Accounting Machine Company, which, in 1926, merged with the Remington Rand Corporation and then merged with the Sperry Gyroscope Company to form the Sperry Rand Corporation, and they produced UNIVAC computers. Eleven years later, in 1937, the MARK I digital computer was built by Howard Aiken and IBM engineers, and Grace Murray Hopper programmed the MARK I. Grace Hopper became an Admiral in the U.S. Navy and was an important contributor to various computer languages, especially COBOL.
In 1939, at the University of Pennsylvania, John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert Jr. led a team of engineers who developed the first electronic digital computer named ENIAC. The ENIAC computer was completed in 1946 and used vacuum tubes. The ENIAC weighed over 30 tons and covered 1500 square feet of floor space. In 1945, the binary number system was developed by John Von Neumann, a Princeton University mathematician. This number system used zeroes and ones as on–off and magnetized and not-magnetized as states that ultimately facilitated the design of electronic computers and formed the fundamentals for today’s electronic computers.

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