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The History of Computers

Updated on October 22, 2016
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Alfred is a long time teacher and computer enthusiast who works with and troubleshoots a wide range of computing devices.

The history of computers is deep rooted in the desire by mankind to quantify basic tasks like additions, subtractions and multiplications. These and other mathematical tasks remain the core reasons behind computers today.

Man actually began the quest to compute by using readily available devices like fingers, sticks and stones, and in 500 BC shifted to the abacus calculator.

As times changed however and the need to compute bigger tasks became apparent, This led to the Turing machine in mid 1900, and eventually advanced computers at the close of the 20th century.

A desktop personal computer of the 21st century
A desktop personal computer of the 21st century

Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Babage and Alan Turing

The shift towards modern computing was probably conceived by Leonardo da Vinci around 1500 AD. He was fascinated by the meaning of numbers and other computing possibilities that he envisaged a mechanical calculator capable of computing abstract and absolute numbers. His dream never materialized but remained in history books.

The 1800s was probably the century when the sign of things to come began manifesting itself. The mounting number of ideas led to the birth of the Analytical Engine theory in 1830s by Charles Babbage.

The theory led to even greater theories by Alan Turing a century later, in the 1930s. While Babbage envisaged a calculating machine as big as a house, which would use punched cards, Alan Turing envisaged a device that computed probable/improbable mathematical tasks.

Turing actually invented the Turing machine to help Western allies decode the encrypted messages of the German Enigma.

Then the ‘first’ digital computer was manufactured in 1941. It was called Z3 and was designed by Konrad Zuse. Z3 was a mammoth machine that had to be operated by a team of hands-on experts.

There followed a flurry of equally huge machines.By the end of the 20th century, computing devices were so huge, they occupied whole rooms.

By this time, the dream of a computer to be manned by one person was closer than many had anticipated. Sooner rather than later, the likes of ENIACS were miniaturized to fit onto desk tops in the 1980s, and at the dawn of the 21st century mop uterus got even smaller and could fit in handbags and pockets. This was the dawn of the personal computer.

Sooner rather than later, the likes of ENIACS were miniaturized to fit onto desk tops in the 1980s, and at the dawn of the 21st century got even smaller and fitted in our handbags and pockets. This was the dawn of the personal computer.

Who according to you must have been most influential in the birth of computers?

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Timeline of Computers

Below is the timeline of computer history starting with the Abacus calculator to the mobile breed of personal computers.

1: The Abacus Calculator

The initial computing tasks which were done using fingers, sticks and stones worked fine for many years but were soon overtaken by evolving technologies. Following population increase and need to compute even bigger tasks, the need for more purposeful devices became paramount.

This precipitated the introduction of Abacus tables and strings amongst the Chinese, thousands of years Before Christ. It was the ultimate computing device in the time.

The use of Suanpan - Abacus for Chinese, and other types of Abaci and counting frames in Asia, was not well documented until about 1000BC when there arose apparent increase in trade across the Asian region.

Variants of the Abaci continued to be popular instruments of calculation and are still in use today in parts of Asia and Africa.

A mobile Chinese abacus calculator
A mobile Chinese abacus calculator | Source

2: The Microprocessor

The invention of the Personal Computer was made possible by two technical innovations in the field of micro-electronics:

A modern microprocessor
A modern microprocessor
The original Intel 4004 processor
The original Intel 4004 processor
  • In 1959, the integrated circuit (IC) was developed.
  • In 1971, the microprocessor was unveiled to the computing world.

The integrated circuit was a great innovation since it meant miniaturization of computer circuit boards and chips. The new chips were reduced to the size of single silicon chips that fitted in the palm of the hand.

In 1971, a team of engineers working for Intel Corporation; Ted Hoff, Federico Faggin and Stan Mazor, invented the microprocessor namely, Intel 4004.

The new chip combined the equivalent of 2300 transistors on a single silicon chip, and this meant further reduction in the size and components that fitted inside a computer.

3: The Altair 8800 and Birth of Microsoft

In 1975, a company called Micro Instrumentation Telemetry Systems (MITS) produced the first desktop-size system specifically designed for personal use. It was called Altair 8800. But the Altair was not necessarily the best example of a personal computer, since interaction with it was limited to very high levels of sophistication.

The birth of the Altair sent a number of computer geeks and enthusiasts into a flurry of activities. Most of them wanted to become part of teams that would be counted in computer history as pioneers of the first personal computers.

Altair 8800b Computer
Altair 8800b Computer | Source

While this period was mostly marked with hardware activities, the software industry was also beginning to grow roots and there was obvious enthusiasm.

The demand for the personal computer meant that someone had to create software to accompany the hardware. Bill gates and Paul Allen were such enthusiasts.

The two young men offered to write software for the newly made Altair. The original Altair used machine code. The two believed the computer would be ‘user friendly’ if users could program it using BASIC interpreter software.

The management of MITS agreed and after almost two months, the new software was installed in the Altair.

A year later, in 1975, Gates and Allen formed a software company called Microsoft and they began writing software for new computers.

The demand for the personal computer was immediate, propelling additional number of hardware and software enthusiasts to grab the opportunity by producing computers for the new market.

4: Apple II and the Birth of Apple Computer

In 1976, Steve Jobs and Stephen Wozniak designed a homemade wooden computer with an integrated microprocessor, which they named Apple I. It was targeted at a growing market of computer enthusiasts.

Apple I composed an integrated motherboard circuit and a handmade wooden casing.

Apple II, the personal computer of 1977
Apple II, the personal computer of 1977 | Source

Pushed on by the excitement of this innovation, the two started a computer manufacturing company which they named Apple Computers, in 1977.

They went back to the laboratories and in June 1977 came up with a brand new personal computer which they named, Apple II. The concept of Apple II was an absolute winner. Apple II came ready with a monitor, two floppy disk drives and system integrated keyboard and sound device.

The computer ran an 8 bit MOS 6502 micro processor running at 1 MHz and 4 kilobytes of memory.

Apple Computers went on to become the fastest-growing company in U.S. at the time. Its rapid growth inspired a large number of micro-computer manufacturers to enter the field.

By the time Apple II was phased out around 1993, it had sold over five million sets in the US alone, a record in itself.

The new design definitely set the pace for the next line of computers. In one way or another it set the tone over what the future computer was to look like. The cue was picked by many companies and Tandy Corporation and IBM were top of the least in conceiving the next line of personal computers.

5: TRS-80 and Computer Storage

Radio Shack, formerly Tandy Corporation, introduced the TRS-80 in August 3, 1977.

The company soon became one of the leading PC sellers. It dominated the field because of two attractive features it included in its computers: a keyboard and a cathode-ray display terminal (CRT) monitor.

It was also popular because it could be programmed and the user was able to store information by means of cassette tape.

TRS-80 Model 3, another personal computer of the 70s
TRS-80 Model 3, another personal computer of the 70s | Source

6: The IBM PC

The first truly successful personal computer was the IBM PC. It was launched in 1981. What made the IBM PC special and different from Apple II and other computers was that it was the first one built from a combination of off the shelf parts and assembled into one PC. The IBM desktop computer came complete with separate monitor, keyboard, and system unit.

The IBM innovation allowed different manufacturers to come up with different qualifying computer parts and having them assembled into complete sets by separate companies.

The IBM-PC from 1981
The IBM-PC from 1981 | Source

The IMB PC used a 16-bit microprocessor; contained a 4.7-MHz 8088 processor, 64 kilobytes of Random Access Memory, MS-DOS 1.0 operating system by Microsoft, a 5.25-inch floppy drive and a cassette tape drive for storage.

This computer initiated the development of faster and more powerful microprocessors, and its use of an operating system that was available to all other computer makers led to some kind of standardization that saw a giant software company spring from Redmond, the headquarters of Microsoft.

All new PCs designed by other companies after that year have remained compatible with the original IBM PC and Microsoft software packages have been installed in most PCs across the world.

7: The Birth of Smartphones and Tablets

The history of computers has seen changes in both speed and size in a period of not more that 70 years. The ENIAC was huge but unfortunately not first enough. When personal computers finally arrived, they offered both speed and room.

The reign of desktop and laptop personal computers was at its peak during the start of the 21st century. From the highest office in Washington to the smallest hut in the African village, computers had become common place.

Then came the mobile phone, which was immediately followed by the tablet computer. This was also the time when the internet was becoming a daily activity across the globe.

An iPad 2: The personal computer of today and tomorrow (2011)
An iPad 2: The personal computer of today and tomorrow (2011) | Source
Samsung Galaxy S III:  A mobile device for the new market (2012)
Samsung Galaxy S III: A mobile device for the new market (2012) | Source

The introduction of the iPhone in 2007 changed the demographics of computing. Users realized they could now accomplish business tasks on the road without necessarily being in the office.

PC manufactures got the cue and a flurry of smartphones flooded the market.

Then came the iPad in 2010. It was the dawn of tablet computing. Tablets offer a much bigger screen making it possible to accomplish tasks that could be done on a traditional desktop computer.

Once again, computer manufacturers got the cue and the market is flooded with tablet computers.

To complete traditional tablet computers, a new phenomena has also emerged in the name of phablet. A phablet is a tablet computer but much smaller and bigger than a smartphone.

Averaging 7 inches, a phablet encompasses the function of the smaller phone, and the bigger tablet.

The proliferation of smartphone and other mobile gadgets has forced many leading companies to shelve production of traditional desktop computers in favor of laptop and increasingly tablets and smartphones.


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    • lindalou1963 profile image

      Linda 5 years ago from Texas

      I recall several years ago I was working at a newspaper in a small town. They had a dictionary that was over 100 years old, it was HUGE! One day I looked up the word computer and it said simply 'one who computes.'

      Your hub is very interesting and informative, I love the photos of the old computers, reminds me of the data processing machines we had in high school, they were the size of a desk. And I just told my age, didn't I?

      Thanks for posting!

    • amuno profile image

      Alfred Amuno 5 years ago from Kampala

      I personally used Pentium 1 to learn computers. Looks like long time back. The feel and look of the computer has changed a great deal. Thanks for reading the hub Linda.

    • Davesworld profile image

      Davesworld 5 years ago from Cottage Grove, MN 55016

      I still have a working Apple ][ with serial number 1735 (I think) I know it's under 2000. Neener neener.

    • amuno profile image

      Alfred Amuno 5 years ago from Kampala

      Lucky you Dave, because that must be a prized item. I remember Apple selling an original Apple I board at $374500. Thanks for dropping by.

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