Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Computer History

A computer is a machine that manipulates data according to a list of instructions.

Computers take numerous physical forms. The first devices that resemble modern computers date to the mid-20th century (around 1940 - 1945), although the computer concept and various machines similar to computers existed earlier. Early electronic computers were the size of a large room, consuming as much power as several hundred modern personal computers. Modern computers are based on comparatively tiny integrated circuits and are millions to billions of times more capable while occupying a fraction of the space. Today, simple computers may be made small enough to fit into a wriswatch and be powered from a watch battery. Personal computers in various forms are icons of the Information Age and are what most people think of as "a computer"; however, the most common form of computer in use today is the embedded computer. Embedded computers are small, simple devices that are used to control other devices — for example, they may be found in machines ranging from fighter aircraft to industrial robots, digital cameras, and children’s toys.

The ability to store and execute lists of instructions called programs makes computers extremely versatile and distinguishes them from calculators. The Church-Turing thesis is a mathematical statement of this versatility: any computer with a certain minimum capability is, in principle, capable of performing the same tasks that any other computer can perform. Therefore, computers with capability and complexity ranging from that of a personal digital asistant to a supercoputer are all able to perform the same computational tasks given enough time and storage capacity.

History of computing

The jacquard loom was one of the first programmable devices.

It is difficult to identify any one device as the earliest computer, partly because the term "computer" has been subject to varying interpretations over time. Originally, the term "computer" referred to a person who performed numerical calculations (a human computer), often with the aid of a mechanical calculating device.

The history of the modern computer begins with two separate technologies - that of automated calculation and that of programmability.

Examples of early mechanical calculating devices included the abacus, the slide rule and arguably the astrolabe and the Antikythera mechanism (which dates from about 150-100 BC). The end of the Middle Ages saw a re-invigoration of European mathematics and engineering, and Wilhelm Shickard’s's 1623 device was the first of a number of mechanical calculators constructed by European engineers. However, none of those devices fit the modern definition of a computer because they could not be programmed.

Hero of Alexandria (c. 10 – 70 AD) built a mechanical theater which performed a play lasting 10 minutes and was operated by a complex system of ropes and drums that might be considered to be a means of deciding which parts of the mechanism performed which actions - and when. This is the essence of programmability. In 1801, Joseph Marie Jacquard made an improvement to the textile looom that used a series of punched paper cards as a template to allow his loom to weave intricate patterns automatically. The resulting Jacquard loom was an important step in the development of computers because the use of punched cards to define woven patterns can be viewed as an early, albeit limited, form of programmability.

It was the fusion of automatic calculation with programmability that produced the first recognisable computers. In 1837, Charles Babbage was the first to conceptualize and design a fully programmable mechanical computer that he called "The Analytical Engine". Due to limited finances, and an inability to resist tinkering with the design, Babbage never actually built his Analytical Engine.

Large-scale automated data processing of punched cards was performed for the U.S Census in 1890 by tabulating machines designed by Herman Hollerith and manufactured by the Computing Tabulating Recording Corporation, which later became IBM. By the end of the 19th century a number of technologies that would later prove useful in the realization of practical computers had begun to appear: the punched card, Boolean algebra, the vacuum tube (thermionic valve) and the teleprinter.

During the first half of the 20th century, many scientific computing needs were met by increasingly sophisticated analog computers, which used a direct mechanical or elestrical model of the problem as a basis for computation. However, these were not programmable and generally lacked the versatility and accuracy of modern digital computers.

A succession of steadily more powerful and flexible computing devices were constructed in the 1930s and 1940s, gradually adding the key features that are seen in modern computers. The use of digital electronics (largely invented by Claude Shannon in 1937) and more flexible programmability were vitally important steps, but defining one point along this road as "the first digital electronic computer" is difficult (Shannon 1940). Notable achievements include: