Computer Story #AToZChallenge

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C

Computers

3rd April means for A2Z challenge the letter “C”. According to my theme, I shall tell you another story of a “C” invention with a huge impact on the world. Of course I will never find an invention that suits that description better than computers, right? Computer Science is my field so this is going to be fun for me and I hope for you as well.

In my first two letters posted in the challenge (AC and Battery) I went back far far away in time to discover the early trials in our ancient civilizations related to the invention. We found there some amazing stuff that we can’t comprehend till today. Would this be the same in our case today with Computers? Are there any computer trial roots dating back to our ancient ancestors?

Before we answer these questions, we need to know the etymology of the term “Computer”. Where did it come from and who is the first person who used this word in history? According to Oxford Dictionary, the first use of the word “computer” was recorded in 1613 in a book called “The yong mans gleanings” by English writer Richard Braithwait

 I haue read the truest computer of Times, and the best Arithmetician that euer breathed, and he reduceth thy dayes into a short number.

It referred to a person who carried out calculations, or computations, and the word continued with the same meaning until the middle of the 20th century. From the end of the 19th century the word began to take on its more familiar meaning, a machine that carries out computations.

So, the word computer today is actually about computability and programmability, right? So, if we are looking into our history to find out the oldest calculation machines we will be amazed by the number of them. Devices like the sumerian abacus (2500 BC) and the automatic theatre invented by the Greek mathematician Hero of Alexandria which was capable of playing an entirely mechanical play almost ten minutes in length, powered by a binary-like system of ropes, knots, and simple machines operated by a rotating cylindrical cogwheel. The sound of thunder was produced by the mechanically-timed dropping of metal balls onto a hidden drum. These are all wonderful machines, but for sure the most exciting calculating machine is the Antikythera Machine.

 

The Antikythera Mechanism may be the first real computer machine on earth. It is an analog computer used to predict astronomical positions and eclipses. It was discovered in 1900-1901 in a shipwreck from the 2nd quarter of the 1st century BC off the Greek island of Antikythera. We didn’t really understand the complexity and function of the machine till the 1970s when it was examined with X-rays to discover its internal structure. Here is a schematic illustrating its complex structure:

The mechanism was operated by turning a small hand crank (now lost) which was linked via a crown gear to the largest gear. This allowed setting of the date on the front dial. The action of turning the hand crank would also cause all interlocked gears within the mechanism to rotate, resulting in the calculation of the position of the Sun and Moon and other astronomical information, such as moon phases, eclipse cycles, and theoretically the locations of planets. 

Here is a video showing a replica of the ancient computer in action

Of course these are not all the details about the complexity and astronomical accuracy of Antikythera Mechanism. If you want to know more about this amazing discovery you can read these detailed articles:

Now back to the modern computer invention story, we will visit the English polymath and mechanical engineer Charles Babbage who is also considered the “Father of Computer”. When he invented his

difference engine (an automatic mechanical calculator designed to tabulate polynomial functions) back in 1883, he realized that it was possible to build a more general design for an analytical engine. The input for the machine of programs and data was provided via punched cards. The output was also punched numbers on cards.

The first modern analog computer was a tide-predicting machine, invented by Sir William Thomson in 1872. The differential analyser, a mechanical analog computer designed to solve differential equations by integration using wheel-and-disc mechanisms, was conceptualized in 1876 by James Thomson, the brother of the more famous Lord Kelvin. 

In 1936, Alan Turing (The most famous name in computer science) described the principle of modern

Alan Turing

Alan Turing

computer (as one of his many contributions in the field). His hypothetical machines were called Turing Machines. He proved that some such machine would be capable of performing any conceivable mathematical computation if it were representable as an algorithm. 

One of his contributions (which is still used till today and will still be used in the future) is the Turing Test. An attempt to define a standard for a machine to be called “intelligent”. The idea was that a computer could be said to “think” if a human interrogator could not tell it apart, through conversation, from a human being. The Turing Test is still used to test the intelligence of computer programs. 

From mechanical to analog computers we come to the electromechanical computers (electric switches drove mechanical relays to perform the calculation). One of the earliest examples of electromechanical computers is Konrad Zuse’s Z2. 

The Z2 had a low computational power (0.8 second for an addition operation) and its weight was 300 Kg. His Z3 was the world’s first working electromechanical programmable, fully automatic digital computer. Its weight was about 1000 Kg with almost the same computation speeds. 

In 1942, ABC (Atanasoff–Berry Computer) was invented by John Vincent Atanasoff and Clifford E. Berry of Iowa State University. It was the first automatic electronic digital computer. It used about 300 vacuum tubes. 

We computer scientists can’t deny the huge role that WWII played in the advancements of computer industry. Colossus was the world’s first electronic digital programmable computer and was used to break German ciphers. In 1946, The US built ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) was the first electronic programmable computer built in the US. Although the ENIAC was similar to the Colossus it was much faster and more flexible. It was unambiguously a Turing-complete device and could compute any problem that would fit into its memory. 

Here we go with another huge jump in Computers Advancement. Back in 1936, Alan Turing stated the basis of the stored-program computers (includes by design an instruction set and can store in memory a set of instructions (a program) that details the computation). Then John Von Neumann came with his famous Von Neumann architecture to describe how a stored-program computer should be organized and built detailing its main components as the RAM, CPU and I/O (Input/Output) devices. 

When the bipolar transistor was invented in 1947, it replaced vacuum tubes in computers since 1955 and on. This led to the minimization of computer sizes, less power consumption and less heat. Which led to the birth of 2nd generation of computers. Of course, that made the way for personal computers (PCs) to appear later so computers would be in every home as they are now. 

One of the major breakthroughs in this story is the idea description of ICs (Integrated Circuits) in 1952 and its first working IC in 1958. ICs made what we can call “An Explosion” in computers industry, because it led to the invention of the microprocessor. The first microprocessor on a single chip was the Intel 4004 in 1971. 

Of course, these are not all the advancements, I just discussed some of the MAJOR breakthroughs in the building of the hardware of the computer. There are a lot more to tell about other aspects of the field like software and programming development over the years. 

To conclude, we can’t say that there is a single origin of this great invention because the developments were from different minds interleaved in times.

To know more about the evolution of computers, you can read this detailed time map article. If you are in the US, then you can explore the computer history in depth in the “Computer History Museum” where you will find an interesting and exciting experiment. 

I don’t need to tell you how our world would be like if the Computer wasn’t invented. You can release the powers of your imagination to imagine only a portion of them. Let me give you a simple example, there won’t be something called the internet. It would have been impossible for you to read this article.

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