History of Computers – Briefly Put

The need to carry out complex calculations has culminated the computer from its mechanical roots of relays and movable parts. While calculating devices have been around since around 3000 BC, modern computing technology traces its roots to 16-17th Centuries. The Evolution of computers is often categorized in Generations. It is relevant to note a period before these a “generation 0” between 1640s-1940s whose machines were mechanical devices (e.g. relays and gears) including Pascal’s Pascaline, the first mechanical calculator.

Generations of Computers

First Generation (1945-1959) Vacuum Tubes

Relays were replaced by vacuum tubes which had no moving parts hence faster, eventually hybrids of both were built. The first electronic computers were the COLOSSUS (1943 – though not publicly-acknowledged) and ENIAC (1946) which contained 18000 vacuum tubes and 1500 relays. Also notable was UNIVAC which became the first commercially available computer.

Second Generation (1960-1965) Transistors

Vacuum tubes replaced by transistors (Invented at Bell Labs in 1948). High Level programming languages developed; FORTRAN and COBOL among others. Transistors were much smaller, and cheaper to make and far more reliable than valves.

Third Generation (1965-1971) Integrated Circuits

Machine speeds went from microsecond to the picoseconds (trillionth) range. Terminals replaced punched cards for data entry. This era saw the rise of Operating Systems and mass production of circuitry. IBM introduced compatible family of computers

Fourth Generation (1973-) VLSI – Very Large Scale Integration

Allowed thousands of transistors to be incorporated in a chip giving rise to the microprocessor- a processor on a chip. These reduced the price of computers giving rise personal computing.

The 1990s saw the Fourth Generation advance into ULSI (Ultra Large Scale Integration) with millions of transistors per chip. In 1965 Intel’s Gordon Moore predicted “the number of transistors on an IC wills double every 18 months.”

Fifth Generation (1985- ) Parallel Processing and Networking

Still a debated generation. How high end machines (e.g. web servers) can have multiple CPUs and inter-connectivity between computers; networks.

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