A Soupcon of Computer History

History of the Computer

“Cogito ergo sum”; “Je pense donc je suis”; “I think, therefore I am” – René Descartes (Mar 31, 1596 to Feb 11, 1650)

The human mind, above the mind of all other creatures, always had the capacity to think like a computer. From the earliest histories we find that it has processed the data in it’s environment to solve problems, create solutions and invent tools. Naturally one of the tools the human mind should conceive would enable him to think faster, therefore solve problems quicker and more efficiently.

Would you believe it if you heard Computers actually date back nearly 3000 years?

A few definitions for Computer:

  1. An electronic device for processing information and performing calculations; follows a program to perform sequences of mathematical and logical operations.
  2. A programmable machine designed to sequentially and automatically carry out a sequence of arithmetic or logical operations.

Over 3000 years ago Ancient civilizations were beginning to develop mathematics and arithmetic. The Greeks, Egyptians, Babylonians, Indians, Chinese, and Persians were all interested in logic and numerical computation.

  • Greeks were focusing mainly on geometry and rationality.
  • Egyptians were mastering simple addition and subtraction
  • Babylonians tackling multiplication and division.
  • India’s great minds, the base-10 decimal numbering system and the concept of zero.
  • Chinese – trigonometry
  • Persians – algorithmic problem solving.

These developments carried over into the following centuries, giving birth to the sciences of astronomy, chemistry/alchemy, and medicine.

The Antikythera Mechanism. A history of the oldest known computer.

Antikythera Machine (circa 150-100 BC), National Archaeological Museum of Athens

Around 150-100 BC. Greek Astronomers may have been responsible for creating the Antikythera mechanism which appears to be constructed upon theories of astronomy and mathematics.

[important]The Antikythera mechanism is an ancient mechanical computer designed to calculate astronomical positions.[/important]

It was recovered in circa 1900 from the Antikythera wreck. Its significance and complexity were not understood until decades later. Technological artifacts of similar complexity and workmanship did not reappear until the 14th century, when mechanical astronomical clocks were built in Europe.

Currently displayed at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, accompanied by a reconstruction made and donated to the museum by Derek de Solla Price. Other reconstructions are on display in the Unite States at the American Computer Museum in Bozeman MT, the Children’s Museum of Manhattan in New York, and the Karlsaue Museum of Astronomy and Technology in Kassel, Germany.

The Antikythera mechanism is the oldest known complex scientific calculator. Certain parts of the mechanism have yet to be found and others remain unidentified, it could consist of as few as 30 or as many as 72 gears, and is sometimes called the first known analog computer. The machine gracefully kept track of the day of the year, the positions of the sun and the moon, and perhaps the other planets. It also predicted eclipses and kept track of upcoming Olympic games.

Its manufacturing perfection suggests that it may have had a number of undiscovered predecessors during the Hellenistic Period (circa 323-146 BCE). Most recent research as published in the July 31, 2008, edition of Nature suggest that the concept for the mechanism originated in the colonies of Corinth, which might imply a connection with the works of Archimedes.

History of computers and punch cards a millennium later.

The Pascaline, CNAM Museum in Paris

Not until the first half of the 17th century were there any important advancements in the automation and simplification of arithmetic computation. Then John Napier invented logarithms to simplify difficult mathematical computations. The slide rule was introduced in 1622, and Blaise Pascal spent most of his life working on his calculator called the Pascaline in the 1600’s. The Pascaline was mostly finished by 1672 and was able to do addition and subtraction by way of mechanical cogs and gears. In 1674 the German mathematician Gottfried Leibnitz created a mechanical calculator called the Leibnitz Wheel. This invention could perform addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, although not very well in all instances.

Four Sided Slide Rule

A great example of an early day instrument is the four sided slide rule. This rare find dates from 1796 – 1804, made by Dring and Fage of 248 Tooley Street, London Bridge. This 12 inch slide rule was for use in the brewing industry. Similar in type originally invented by a Custom & Excise officer named Everard in the 17th century. Designed to facilitate all manner of calculations, particularly the alcoholic content of a beverage in order to ascertain the amount of duty payable, the instrument is marked with a staggering amount of information. Each of the four sliding center pieces, brass tipped at one end, has a mass of information on the back.


The Jacquard Loom

Finally in 1801 Joseph Marie Jacquard (1752-1834) of Lyons France built his draw loom to automate the process of weaving rugs and clothing. It did this using punched cards that told the machine what pattern to weave. It was the first successful pattern loom to operate on a mechanized basis.

In a similar basis to the player piano, where there was a hole in the card the machine would weave and where there was no hole the machine would not weave. The patterns woven were controlled by the patterns of the holes in the set of punched cards organized in the sequence in which they were to be used. As each card falls into its position, only those needles connected to the warp corresponding to the punched holes are allowed through. This allowed the loom to produce complex patterns and even pictures in silk and other materials. When all of the cards have been used, the sequence begins again. They could run on a continuous loop.

This technique became so successful that within 10 years, the punched card device was attached to 18,000 looms in Lyons. The Jacquard loom was a technological break through. Jacquard even received a pension from Napoleon for his invention.


In the years to come Jacquard’s idea of punched cards would find their way into more inventions, even by computer companies like IBM to program software.

Difference Engine and the Analytical Machine

The Difference Engine, Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California

In 1822, Charles Babbage (1791-1871) proposed the use of a machine in a paper to the Royal Astronomical Society on June 14th entitled “Note on the application of Machinery to the Computation of Astronomical and Mathematical Tables” By 1823 Babbage received a grant from the British Government to start his project. Interested in automated computation he began work on his Difference Engine, a machine that could tackle the four basic components of a computer: input, output, storage, and processing. It was the largest and most sophisticated mechanical calculator of his time. Along with addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division to 6 digits, the Difference Engine could also solve polynomial equations. It was never actually completed because the British Government cut off funding for the project in 1842.

The Analytical Machine, Science Museum, London

Soon after he began to draw up plans for his Analytical Machine, a general purpose programmable computing machine. Although it only existed on paper, this Machine had all the same basic parts that modern computer systems have. His idea consisted of 4 parts: an input device, a storage device, a mill (processing unit) and an output device.

While designing the Analytical Machine, Babbage noticed that he could perfect his Difference Engine by using 8,000 parts rather than 25,000 and could solve up to 20 digits instead of just 6. He drew schematics for a Difference Engine #2 between 1847 and 1849. This Analytical Machine, conceived by Babbage in 1834, was designed to evaluate any mathematical formula and to have even higher powers of analysis than his original Difference engine of the 1820’s. A crucial step was the adoption of a punched-card system derived from the Jacquard loom. The punched cards were used for three principal purposes. A number card was used to introduce numeric value of a constant into the engine. A variable card was used to define the axis on which the number was to be placed. The variable card also transported numbers back and forth from the mill, the processing or operations unit. The third card, the operation cards, controlled the action of the mill. It decided what operation to use, addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division.

The control of the sequence of operations was done in a fashion similar to that of a Jacquard loom. This was the only device capable of being adapted to the purpose of the Analytical Engine at the time and Babbage was very appreciative of its possibilities. This punch card system borrowed from the jacquard loom was ideal for controlling the sequence of simple arithmetical instructions required in a calculation by the Analytical Engine.

After twelve years spent trying to get his Analytical Machine built, Babbage had to give up. The British Government was not interested in funding the machine and the technology to build the gears, cogs, and levers for the machine did not exist in that time period.

In 1991 a team of engineers at the Science Museum in London completed the calculating section of Babbage’s Difference Engine. In 2002 the museum created a full fledged model of the Difference Engine #2 that weighs 5 tons and has 8,000 parts. Miraculously, it worked just as Babbage had envisioned. A duplicate of this engine was built and was sent to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA..

History of the US Census and computer advancements

With a growing population the U.S. Census Bureau found a daunting task of completing the current Census calculations before it was time to take the next Census. The 1880 Census had taken 8 months to tabulate and the 1890 might require 10-12 years to manually perform all necessary calculations.

Hollerith electric tabulating system, including tabulating machine, card reader, pantograph punching machine, and sorting machine, 1890, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

To solve their problems the U.S. Census Bureau held a competition that called for proposals outlining a better way. The winner of the competition was Herman Hollerith, a statistician who proposed that the use of automation machines would greatly reduce the time needed to calculate the Census data. He then designed and built programmable card processing machines that would read, tally, and sort data entered on punch cards. The census data was coded onto cards using a keypunch. Then these cards were taken to a tabulator for counting and tallying and sorter for ordering alphabetically or numerically.

Although Hollerith’s machines were not all-purpose computers, they were a step in that direction. They successfully helped complete the 1890 Census in just 2 years with a population 30% larger then in 1880. This proved that automated processing was definitely more efficient for large scale operations. Hollerith saw the potential in his tabulating and sorting machines. He soon left the U.S. Census Bureau to found the Computer Tabulating Recording Company. His punch card machines became national bestsellers. In 1924 Hollerith’s company changed its name to International Business Machines (IBM) after a series of mergers with other similar companies.


History of the contributions of Konrad Zuse

The Z1 Computer

A reconstruction of Konrad Zuse's Z1 binary floating-point mechanical computer. (1938) at Berlin’s German Technology Museum.

The first in a series followed by Z2 and Z3, was wholly mechanical and only worked for a few minutes at a time at most. Designed and built by Konrad Zuse from 1935 to 1938, containing almost all the parts of a modern computer. Control unit, memory, micro sequences, floating point logic and input-output devices. A binary, electrically driven mechanical calculator with limited programming abilities, reading instructions from punched tape. A 22-bit floating point value add and subtract, with some control logic to make it capable of more complex operations such as multiplication using repeated additions, and division using repeated subtractions. The instruction set had nine instructions and it took between one and twenty cycles per instruction.

The first freely programmable computer in the world which used Boolean logic and binary floating point numbers. The input and output were in decimal numbers, with a decimal exponent and the units had special machinery for converting these to and from binary numbers. The input and output instructions would be read or written as floating point numbers. Using 35mm film tape with the instructions encoded in punched holes.

With a 64-word floating point memory, where each word of memory could be read from, and written to, by the control unit. The mechanical memory units were unique in their design and were patented Zuse in 1936. The machine was only capable of executing instructions while reading from the punched tape reader, so the program itself was not loaded in its entirety into internal memory in advance. Completed in 1938, financed completely from private funds.

The Z2 Computer

Z2 uses telephone relays instead of mechanical logical circuits.

Improving on the Z1, using the same mechanical memory but replacing the arithmetic and control logic with electrical relay circuits. In contrast to the Z1, the Z2 used 16 bit fixed point arithmetic instead of 22 bit floating point and weighing just over half of the Z1’s 2,200 lbs at only 660 lbs. The realization of the Z2 was helped financially by Dr. Kurt Pannke, who manufactured small calculating machines. Completed in 1939 and presented to an audience of the Deutsche Versuchsanstalt für Luftfahrt (German Laboratory for Aviation) in 1940 in Berlin-Adlershof. Fortunately for Zuse this presentation was one of the few instances where the Z2 actually worked and the DVL was convinced to partly finance the next design.


The Z3 Computer

The reconstructed Z3 computer of Zuse in Deutschen Museum, München

Was an electromechanical computer, the world’s first working programmable, fully automatic computing machine. Built in 1941, a highly secret project of the German government. It was Turing complete, although it lacked the conditional branch operation. By modern standards was one of the first machines that could be considered a complete computing machine. Built with 2,000 relays, implementing a 22 bit word length that operated at a clock frequency of about 5–10 Hz. Completed in Berlin in 1941. The German Aircraft Research Institute used it to perform statistical analyses of wing flutter.

These computers were destroyed during Allied bombardments shortly after each was completed. A fully functioning replica of the Z3 was reconstructed by Zuse’s company, Zuse KG, under the supervision of Zuse and is on permanent display in the Deutsches Museum.


[notice]PART II coming soon! ;)[/notice]


About the Author

Mike Conroy

When Mike was introduced to Windows it was invoked as a DOS command line. This new GUI (Graphical User Interface) was quite useless as the mouse was still being developed. The next nightmare technology had to offer was installing the driver for the new HID (Human Interface Device) –mouse-- in the autoexec.bat and the config.sys files. He remembers a man talking about system memory, the man said "640K, who will ever need more?" One day, just before placing his telephone into a 300bps saddle to dial-up a BBS (Bulletin Board System) he had to tackle extended and expanded memory, because someone said you now need 1024KB (.00097656 GB), that was the 1980's. Things have changed exponentially since then. Now neither phones or computers need a wire, the mouse is nearly obsolete, the BBS is a world wide network and a laptop really fits on your lap!