Computers: The Past

Hi, everyone! I’m a time-traveller and the new writer for Passion For STEM. I hope you don’t hate my writings too much. To understand the future of Computing, we must first know at least a little about the past. Let’s do some time travelling together, then.

blur close up code computer
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*POOF*

It’s 1000 BCE and we’re in a moneylender’s place in China. We see someone asking for a loan of what is apparently a big amount (We know this because Susan is with us and translates it for us.) (Thanks, Susan.). What do we see the moneylender doing his mathematical calculations on?

It’s a weird rectangular device with lots of little beads in it. Familiar, huh?
This is currently known as The Abacus.

multicolored abacus photography
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*POOF*

We’re back here. So, the Abacus was invented by the Chinese a long time (we’ll see how long when we take our next trip) before anyone even came close to inventing a device that helped humans in solving their math problems. It was a simple device with very basic operations but still could help a lot when big numbers were into consideration (like we saw at that moneylender’s).

*POOF*

It’s 15XX C.E. (Yes, this long.) and we are in a place called “George’s Happy Place”. When we look around, we see many men singing and drinking what appears to be beer from glasses in their hands. You can clearly see that they are far too gone into their own “happy place” to notice the real world. We make our way through them to what seems to be a relatively quiet spot in the place. Here you can see that there are others too, who are not interested in all the singing and dancing. We choose a table for ourselves and sit down. I say the beer is on me, so you order as much as you can. But before you start
gulping it down, I stop you and ask you to listen closely to the surroundings. We can hear voices from the nearby tables. People are discussing everything from the mystic wisdom of the east to the aftereffects of wars upon the world. But what I point out to you in the small group of sober-looking men sitting rather quietly at a table not too far away from us. They’re talking about a madman who claims that he can create a machine that can help humans solve many of their mathematical problems. He is the same guy who is known to have made claims about other far-fetched and magical sounding devices.
They are talking about the man who we today know as arguably the most influential, versatile and diversely talented person to have ever lived – Leonardo da Vinci.

*POOF*

Yes, I know you couldn’t finish your free beer but hey, focus.
So, Leonardo da Vinci in the 16th century is thought to have designed the world’s first mechanical calculator. And it’s no wonder that it’s him who broke what is literally thousands of years of mind-block of humanity since the Abacus.
And then after Leonardo, there were a number of developments in this field like the “Napier Bones” invented John Napier in 1600 based upon Arabian lattice, the invention of the Circular Side rule and its Rectilinear version by William Oughtred in 1833, and then The Pascaline, invented by Blaise Pascal.

The Pascaline was a mechanical calculator that was capable of addition, subtraction, and multiplication.

Then in 1673, Gottfried Leibniz invented the first calculator that could perform multiplication and division – the Stepped Reckoner.

scientific calculator ii
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Now, in case you were wondering why I am talking about calculators for so long, then you must know that these very calculators were the ones that paved the path for modern computing. Also, what is the difference between these calculators and computers at a basic level? I know you can’t watch your Netflix shows on your calculator, but by “basic” I mean basic. What’s the difference between you using your computer to do 100,000 calculations and you using your calculator for the same?

The calculator can’t remember.

You could do 8 + 5 on an Abacus or any of the machines developed later, but could you prove it to anyone else that you did that particular calculation on that device? Or further, use your last calculation to calculate a bigger problem? Once you do a calculation, it’s all over. You do another calculation on the same device and you can’t look back to the last calculation.

This is where the historic timeline of calculators and computers branch away.

In 1822 Charles Babbage invents the Difference Engine. The purpose of the Difference Engine was to tabulate polynomial functions automatically. That was all.
But in 1837, Babbage built another machine, a successor to his Difference Engine, the Analytical Engine. The Analytical Engine had an Arithmetic Logic Unit, conditional branching and loops, and integrated Memory. Sounds familiar, huh? It is essentially the same design as the computer that you studied in school, remember?

But sadly, Babbage was not able to pursue any of his proposals for long because of the shortage of funding. Just imagine where we would be if he could’ve done so. Probably at the end of the Information Age by now? Anyway, the first modern computers were actually built more than a century later in the 1940s.

And now we fast forward through the rest of the timeline (I may have more than enough time, but you don’t.)

The first programmable computer is created by Konrad Zuse in 1938 (in his parents’ living room, no less). It was the first electro-mechanical binary programmable computer which actually worked. It’s considered to be the first modern computer.
The invention of transistors by the Bell Telephone Company in 1947 played a major role in advancing the computers and in 1953 International Business Machines brought out their first computer.

green ram card collection
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Bank computers using Magnetic Ink Character Recognition (MICR) are invented in 1955.
In 1958, Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce invented the Integrated Circuit. The Computer Chip.
And now started a blizzard of major developments in the world of computers. The first video game was invented in 1962, the Mouse in 1963 and the Internet (ARPANET) in 1969.

From 1974-77, Apple and IBM introduced personal computers to the world.
Bill Gates and Paul Allen develop the BASIC language for computers in 1975. This is the birth of Microsoft.

Motorola brings out the world’s first commercial mobile phone in 1983, the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X.

apps blur button close up
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The World Wide Web was invented by Tim Berners Lee and what is less known, also the CERN (Lee was a scientist at CERN) in 1989. In 1993 CERN put WWW in Public Domain, and you can see the results of this today. We have more to thank CERN for than many would like to accept. CERN also reinstated the first website initially hosted on Lee’s NeXT computer in 2013. You can still visit the world’s first website here.

Soon enough, laptops are brought out in the market. The Power Book 100 is considered to be the first “really modern” laptop. It was released on 21 st October 1991 and was manufactured by Sony for Apple Computers.

Nokia then gave a big boost to mobile phone development when it brought out the first commercial mobile phone with internet capabilities in 1996, the Nokia Communicator 9000. It could be used for browsing the web and reading email.
And soon (in a couple of decades), the whole world is now using smartphones that can be used to contact literally anyone you know (with some restrictions, obviously. You can’t just ring up Tom Cruise whenever you want) on the whole planet and access almost all of the human knowledge on the palm of your hand. And similarly, in the next century, the technological advancement of humans will be way more than what we can imagine right now. The whole concept of mobile phone and computers wo-whoa, wait! I got a little carried away. The future should be a mystery as it has always been. The day humans get the ability to know their future, they literally would have no limits whatsoever. Again, something to think about, huh?

Alright, so I guess that’s all for today from my side. If you have any questions or interesting things to add, please comment below. I’ll try to reply to them all (I’m a little busy with all my time but again, one thing that I’m never short of, is time).

Author – Paranjay Bind

Paranjay is a freelance writer and is currently studying for a Bachelors degree in Computer Applications at Symbiosis International University. His prime field of interest is Cosmology. In the future he aims to help further increase the human understanding of the Universe.

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