A Brief History of Computers That Changed the World
The computer is undoubtedly among mankind’s most important inventions. The ability to compute and store data provides us with the ability to tackle problems that would likely be impossible to handle otherwise. It’s hard to imagine scientists looking for the Higgs-Boson with nothing more than typewriters and legal pads.
You can spend years delving into the history of the computer. There are tons of inventions, tons of books about them – and that’s before you start getting into the finger-pointing that inevitably occurs when a team of engineers creates something wonderful and only a few are given credit. With that said, I’ve tried to sum up computer history by highlighting thirteen particularly influential computers.
Harvard Mark I
Early computers were electro-mechanical, which means they used mechanical components as part of the computing process. The Harvard Mark I was one of many such machines, but it is unique because a team of engineers at IBM were involved in its creation.
The 5-ton computer, completed in 1944, read instructions via paper taper. It lacked many of the features of modern computers but inspired additional work both at Harvard (where it ended up) and at IBM (which helped to engineer it).
ENIAC was the world’s first electronic general-purpose computer. It was digital, fully programmable and Turning complete. The massive computer, which weighed about twenty-seven tons, dwarfed the computational power of previous computers.
Although used primarily to help the United States military with artillery calculations, the first problem assigned to it was related to the design of the hydrogen bomb.
A number of improvements were made to the computer over the years, the most important of which was likely the inclusion of a stored programing mechanism in 1948. It was not, however, the first computer to have this feature.
No, that honor goes to the Manchester Baby. This experimental computer became operational in mid-1948 and was used as a testbed for a new technology known as the Williams Tube. This cathode ray tube could be used as short-term memory.
This mean it was possible to load programs into computer memory, which were then read. The limitations of the Williams Tube meant the programming process was still laborious, but it was an effective proof of concept. It lead to the Manchester Mark I, which improved on the concept of electronic storage by adding a magnetic drum.
Early computers built in the 1940s were government programs usually funded by a national military, but commercialization quickly developed. The first commercial computer was the UNIVAC I, which was built for a division of the Remington Rand company (yes, the same Remington famous for its firearms).
UNIVAC won a major pop-culture victory for computing when it accurately predicted that Eisenhower would win the 1952 United States presidential election. This was contrary to the most popular human predictions at the time, which favored Adlai Stevenson.
IBM System 360
Today we are used to thinking of our computers as an ecosystem, but in the early days of computing most machines were one-off models. A program developed for a computer would only run on that computer.
The IBM System/360 mainframe computer sought to change that. It could be ordered in a variety of models with different processing power, but each machine was compatible with the others, which meant applications developed for any one machine would work on any variant. This development contributed to IBM’s financial success and inspired the adoption of this approach in future computers.
Most computers that have changed history were not mere prototypes, but the Dynabook is the exception. Shown in 1968 by Alan Kay, this concept computer featured a display and keyboard attached on a single slate. It was small enough to carry with one hand but contained the two major user interface elements of the day – a display and keyboard.
There was no way to make the Dynabook with technology from that era, but its design was a major influence on Steve Jobs, who admired the prototype’s simplicity. Every tablet computer designed since 1968 has some debt to pay to this design.
The late 70s saw a plethora of personal computers hit the market, many of which were successful. Among them, the Apple II arguably was the most influential. This computer did not just attempt to make the computer affordable for the average person. It also tried to make the computer approach work for the average person.
Its production run did not end until 1993, at which point nearly six million had been sold. This was the computer that gave Apple the lion’s share of its early profit, providing the funds needed to pioneer other important PCs.
The 1980s were the era of the IBM-Compatible PC. It all started with the IBM 5150, the first product introduced to the IBM-Compatible platform. The IBM 5150 was not a particularly revolutionary computer on its own, but it did feature everything that was needed from PCs at the time, such as a powerful 8088 CPU and an available floppy disk drive.
It was followed by a number of additional IBM products throughout the 1980s and a hoard of IBM-compatible models made by other manufacturers. The 5150 pioneered the PC as we know it today – a platform that can run common software despite differences in hardware.
The 1980s also saw the rise of portable computers. The most influential of these was probably the Compaq Portable. Released in 1983, the IBM-compatible Portable was a commercial success. It featured all the hardware a modern user expected and was compatible with common software.
Portable was a relative term, of course – this PC weighed 28 pounds and was the size of a large suitcase. That was tiny for a PC in that era, however, and a wide variety of similar devices were constructed over the next decade.
The Macintosh was not the first personal computer with a graphical operating system, but it was the first to catch on. The command line was banished in favor of attractive on-screen graphics and the mouse was introduced for navigation.
Apple’s release of the Macintosh was announced by the famous “1984” advertisement. This gained major press attention and made the original Mac hugely influential, however, it was troubled by the fact that software from the era was programmed to run in a command-line interface.
Apple reached out to some developers to solve this problem, one of which was Microsoft. Redmond made a fair bit of money by porting its productivity software to the Mac.
In 1989 Compaq yet again pioneered a portable computing approach with its new LTE. It was notably the first notebook computer, but it became the most successful and influential of the early models. This was due to its hardware features. The LTE had everything needed including a floppy drive and hard disk.
The LTE spawned follow-ups from numerous other manufacturers. Few could have guessed that this tiny, 6.7 pound computer would found a form-factor that one day would top the popularity of desktop PCs.
ATX is a form factor specification by Intel. It specifies the size of the motherboard, where the holes used to attach it to a case are located, and the location of various expansion slots. There are also specifications for the power supply and some other components. It took over for the AT form factor and became the default for all desktop computers in by the late 90s.
This not a computer, obviously, but it’s as important to the computer’s evolution as the first IBM-compatible PC. It’s the reason why there are no longer multiple manufacturers developing their own different computers with custom hardware and operating systems. The ATX form factor has conquered nearly all computers and “Wintel” – the combination of Windows running on Intel hardware – has become the dominant platform. Apple is the only companies that continues to sell hardware with its own operating system installed.
The release of the iPad has already had an obvious impact on the computer industry. Microsoft is rushing to meet it with Windows 8 RT and a number of Android alternatives are already on the market.
It’s hard to say what exact impact the iPad will have, but we can say it’s already had an impact. The Dynabook has finally arrived and is available to consumers. It’ll be interesting to see what new designs are introduced and how they change traditional PCs.
Obviously, a short look at computer history can’t cover everything. If you know of a computer that you particularly admire, I encourage you to post about it in the comments and tell us why you think it is important.