The Early History of Computers

The computer is one of the most important advances in business history.  The ideas that led to the invention of the modern computer date back as far as the 1700's but the real work started around the 1860's.  The following article is grouped into different sections outlined below.  Click on the computer of the desired section to go to that section or scroll down to start at the beginning.

1.  In the Beginning 4.  The Beginnings of the Commercial Computer.  
2.  Computing Before the Modern Electronic Computer.    5.  Stored-Program Computer  
3.   The Mechanical Office and the Big Four   6.  IBM and  compatibility  




In the Beginning


The word computer as we know it today comes from the original early 20th century word computer meaning a person who solved mathematical equations.  The first computers were used to do just that; solve mathematical equations that would have taken people forever to figure out by hand due to time restraints (Ceruzzi 1) .

The picture to the left is that of the world’s first computers.    The world’s first computers were "human computers” working away.  This particular picture was taken in Los Angeles.  Even after the first computers were developed, much of large-scale data processing was performed manually by large numbers of clerks.  This was done until today’s modern computer was born around the 1950’s (Ceruzzi 2).


Computing Before the Modern Electronic Computer. 

Shortly after the first mass-produced calculator (1820), Charles Babbage began a quest to invent a programmable machine. His first difference engine was developed around 1842 as a scaled down version.  The full difference engine was never built.   

With Babbage’s 1842 difference engine Ada Lovelace mechanically translated a short written work. As a result she is thought to be the first programmer (Internet 1).

It was not until twelve years later that computer science was truly born though.   George Boole wrote An Investigation of the Laws of Thought (1854). From this Boole was given the title as the father of computer science. (Internet 1)

It was then 36 years later that what was to become the precursor to the electronic computer was developed for the United States Census of 1890.  The 1880 census was done entirely by hand and took over seven years to complete.  Herman Hollerith saw and understood the problem with the census and he went about to create a machine that would tabulate the results.  The key idea to Hollerith’s method was to record all of the data on to cards similar to the original computer punch cards.  He got the idea for this method from watching a conductor punch out a description of an individual on a train.  “ . . . Light hair, dark eyes, large nose, etc.” They were making a “punch photograph” of each person (Campbell-Kelly 22).  The beauty of Hollerith’s method was that once the cards were punched tabulation was easy.  His method cut the census time down from seven years to two and a half years.

 The Mechanical Office and the Big Four

Before the computer entered the office of the modern day business there were three key office machines that occupied all businesses.  These were the typewriter, a filling system and an automated adding machine.  To produce these mechanical office devices four main suppliers came forward.  In 1928 Remington Rand was on top of this business with sales of $60 million followed by National Cash Register (NCR) who had sales totaling $50 million then Burroughs Adding Machine Company with sales of $32 million.  In fourth lagging behind was IBM who had sales of around $20 million.  Just four short years later the computer came and IBM leaped over the other three and had sales of $21 billion -  exceeding the sales of the other three combined (Campbell-Kelly 29)

These companies and their mechanical office equipment started to give the business world a new and exciting edge.  Business operations were done faster and more accurately than ever before.  The major advantages of these were time.  Their devices allowed for the business world to work at a much faster rate.  But they were still limited especially in the area of computing large timely equations.  This was seen not only in the business world but also in the academic world.  It due to this need that the idea of the commercial computer came about and IBM was right there waiting to pounce the opportunity to enter into a new market (Campbell-Kelly 30-45).  

 The Beginnings of the Commercial Computer.

In 1943 John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert of the Moore School at Penn State began development of the Electronic Numerical Integrator Analyzer and Computer (ENIAC) (Internet1).  Before the computer was built the computer makers set up a set of three guidelines.  The first of these was “Flexibility of Control.” The people at the Moore School wanted this computer to do much more than just analyze numbers.  The second guideline was “simplicity.” Knowing that it would be complicated, it was important to keep each part as simple as possible to keep down human and mechanical errors.  The third guideline was “Worst-case design”.  In other words to plan for what would be the worse thing possible and then plan around that so when it happened it would not affect the machine (Ritche 156-157).   

In 1944, the Harvard Mark I was introduced. Based on a series of proposals from Howard Aiken in the late 1930's, the Mark I computed complex tables for the U.S. Navy. It used a paper tape to store instructions.  Grace Hopper  was hired as one of three programmers working on the machine. Thomas J. Watson, Sr. played a pivotal role involving his company, IBM, in the machine's development (Internet 1).


On September 9, 1945, Grace Hopper recorded the first actual computer "bug" - a moth stuck between the relays on the Harvard Mark II. Hopper, a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, helped program the Harvard Mark I and II and developed the first compiler, A-0. Some of her work also led to COBOL, one of the first major computer languages.  This would allow programs to work different machines from different manufacturers. (Internet 4)


Stored-Program Computer

In 1949, Maurice Wilkes assembled the EDSAC. The EDSAC was the first practical stored-program computer. His ideas grew out of the Moore School lectures he had attended three years earlier.

The programs that were stored on the EDSAC were a collection or library of short programs otherwise know as subroutines that were stored on punched paper tapes.  The EDSAC used vacuum tubes with a memory of 1,000 words and could compute 714 operations per second (Internet 4)  


On March 31, 1951 the first UNIVAC was turned over to the U.S. Census Bureau.  This began the era of commercial sales of large-scale stored-program computers in the United States.  The UNIVAC’s logical structure meant that it could do multiple operations.  Before this, computers were created for one purpose and owned by its manufactures.  The UNIVAC started a change that was going to move through the entire industry including IBM. (Ceruzzi 25-27)

 IBM and the compatibility

 After WWII had ended IBM said that there was only a market for about twelve computers world wide and that IBM had no place in that market.  By 1950 though realized the flaw in their idea and became the major player in the computer market (Campbell-Kelly 105).  It was the IBM 701 that set the beginning of the IBM era yet it was not the computer that defined what IBM could do.  The IBM 701 was criticized as inferior to current models of other computers.  It was though the IBM 1401 that certified IBM as a computer maker (Internet 3). 


In 1957, the first magnetic hard disk for data storage  was developed. The 305 Random Access Method of Accounting and Control (RAMAC) permitted random access to any of 5 million bytes of data stored on 50 double sided two-foot-diameter disks. This method of storage was adopted throughout the industry. The RAMAC 305 even gets into the sports world by scoring the Squaw Valley, California Winter Olympics. It also tallied votes at both U.S. political conventions and processes U.S. presidential election returns. (Internet 5)


Dealing with issues of upgrading and losing current customers IBM started to make new computer compatible with old one and different models.  This way when people upgraded they would still be able to use old programs and not have to start from scratch like they did when they had to upgrade systems at this time (Campbell-Kelly 138).  It was 1964 when the concept of modern day computing was born when the IBM System/360 was born.  This computer was compatible with the previous versions of older IBM computers of all sizes.  This meant that no matter how big a company’s computer was and whatever type of programs had been written for its previous computers could work on the new IBM System/360 (Campbell-Kelly 142-144) . 


  It was now the beginning of the modern Computing age


 Works Cited


Ceruzzi, Paul E.  A History of Modern Computing   The MIT Press.   Cambridge, Massachusetts  1998.

Nash, Stephen G. Editor.  A History of Scientific Computing.  ACM Press.  New York, New York 1990.

Cohen, Bernard, Gregory W. Welch Editor.  Makin’ Numbers:  Howard Aiken and the Computer.  The MIT Press.  Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1999.

Campbell-Kelly, Martin, William Aspray.  Computer:  A History of Information Machine.  Harper Collins Publishers, Inc.  New York, New York.  1996.

Ritchie, David.  The Computer Pioneers:  The Making of the Modern computer. Simon and Schuster. New York, New York. 1986.

Rojas, Raul, Ulf Hashagen.  The First Computers—History and Architectures.  The MIT Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts.  2000.  

Internet 1.  "A Brief History of Computers and Networks".

Internet 2.  "Computer History Collection".

Internet 3.  "IBM History Highlights".

Internet 4.  "John Louis von Neumann".

Internet 5.  "The Computer Museum History Center".