A Computing History

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by Spencer Wade

A computer is a general purpose device that can be programmed to carry out a finite set of arithmetic or logical operations. Since a sequence of operations can be readily changed, the computer can solve more than one kind of problem. Conventionally, a computer consists of at least one processing element, typically a central processing unit (CPU) and some form of memory. The processing element carries out arithmetic and logic operations, and a sequencing and control unit that can change the order of operations based on stored information. Peripheral devices allow information to be retrieved from an external source, and the result of operations saved and retrieved.

The first electronic digital computers were developed between 1940 and 1945 in the United Kingdom and United States. Originally they were the size of a large room, consuming as much power as several hundred modern personal computers (PCs). In this era mechanical analog computers were used for military applications.

Modern computers based on integrated circuits are millions to billions of times more capable than the early machines, and occupy a fraction of the space. Simple computers are small enough to fit into mobile devices, and mobile computers can be powered by small batteries. Personal computers in their various forms are icons of the Information Age and are what most people think of as “computers”. However, the embedded computers found in many devices from MP3 players to fighter aircraft and from toys to industrial robots are the most numerous.

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The history of the modern computer begins with two separate technologies, automated calculation and programmability. However no single device can be identified as the earliest computer, partly because of the inconsistent application of that term. A few devices are worth mentioning though, like some mechanical aids to computing, which were very successful and survived for centuries until the advent of the electronic calculator, like the Sumerian abacus, designed around 2500 BC of which a descendant won a speed competition against a modern desk calculating machine in Japan in 1946, the slide rules, invented in the 1620s, which were carried on five Apollo space missions, including to the moon and arguably the astrolabe and the Antikythera mechanism, an ancient astronomical computer built by the Greeks around 80 BC.The Greek mathematician 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.

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Around the end of the 10th century, the French monk Gerbert d’Aurillac brought back from Spain the drawings of a machine invented by the Moors that answered either Yes or No to the questions it was asked. Again in the 13th century, the monks Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon built talking androids without any further development (Albertus Magnus complained that he had wasted forty years of his life when Thomas Aquinas, terrified by his machine, destroyed it).

In 1642, the Renaissance saw the invention of the mechanical calculator, a device that could perform all four arithmetic operations without relying on human intelligence. The mechanical calculator was at the root of the development of computers in two separate ways. Initially, it was in trying to develop more powerful and more flexible calculators that the computer was first theorized by Charles Babbage[14][15] and then developed. Secondly, development of a low-cost electronic calculator, successor to the mechanical calculator, resulted in the development by Intel of the first commercially available microprocessor integrated circuit.

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