February 1960 Popular Electronics
[Table of Contents]
People old and young enjoy waxing nostalgic about and learning some of the history of early electronics. Popular
Electronics was published from October 1954 through April 1985. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged. See all articles from
years ago, when this article was originally published, most
computers were constructed either of gears or of vacuum tubes.
The Univac in the photo below was a breakthrough for having
been built entirely of transistors. Even with its "compact"
size, the total power was less than that of my handheld calculator,
whose size is largely dictated not by the volume of the electronic
circuits, but by the size of the display and the need for input
keys larges enough to press reliably.
Far from bursting on the scene fully developed, computers
have been in a state of constant evolution for over 300 years
By Dick Yates
The nameless Neolithic man who hacked out the first wheel
may well be the world's most celebrated caveman, but for sheer
creative genius he had a strong rival in one of his less publicized
contemporaries: the hairy character who first discovered that
by manipulating his own fingers he could "describe" all quantities
between one and ten. By so doing, he not only founded the science
of mathematics (whose decimal system, based on varying powers
of ten, is forever linked to the fact that human beings have
ten fingers), but at the same time he was operating the world's
first digital computer.
After this world-shaking discovery, it was only a question
of time before counters other than fingers came into use - columns
of pebbles laid on the ground, pellets of bronze or ivory that
slid back and forth on a grooved board, beads strung on wires
within a frame. All these devices gradually evolved into the
abacus - the standard calculating instrument of all the civilizations
of antiquity, and still widely in use throughout the Far East.
Each of the abacus' parallel bead-strung wires represents
one place in the notation system (units, tens, hundreds, and
thousands) and each holds two groups of beads: one of five beads,
each representing a single unit of that power; and one of two
beads, each representing five units. Learning to use an abacus
takes time, but surprisingly enough, an experienced operator
can perform computations as fast as a man working a modern desk
Early Calculating Machines. Only after the passage of many
centuries was the first major advance over the abacus made.
In 1642, the French philosopher and scientist Blaise Pascal
- then only 19 years old - invented the first true adding machine;
Pascal's calculator was the first in a long and illustrious
line of mechanical calculating devices. Twenty years later,
in England, Sir Samuel Morland developed a more compact calculator
that could multiply (by cumulative addition) as well as add
and subtract. And in 1682, the German Wilhelm Leibnitz perfected
a machine that could perform all four basic arithmetical functions
as well as the extraction of square roots. Leibnitz' principles
are still employed in modern calculating machines, the only
major difference being the introduction of electric power to
speed up the movement of the mechanical parts.
Pascal's calculator of 1642. The device was
"programed" by turning the bottom wheels. Each revolution of
a wheel caused the adjoining wheel on the left to advance one
notch, or digit. The numbers behind the little windows provided
"read-out." The six wheels on the left operated on the decimal
system and could handle numbers up to 999,999. The two divisions
at far right were for use in adding so us and deniers, French
money of the time.
Another great name in the development of automatic computation
is that of Charles Babbage, a mathematics professor at England's
Oxford University, who in 1812 designed what he called a "difference
engine" for mechanically performing advanced mathematical calculations
"without mental intervention." Neither that machine nor a later
Babbage invention, the "analytical engine," proved practical
for general manufacture because of the technological limitations
of the period, but Babbage's designs remain valid today. The
logical organization of many modern electronic computers bears
a remarkable similarity to those of his "engines."
The next important development was the mechanical tabulator
capable of simultaneously registering horizontal and vertical
sums and of processing large amounts of data rapidly in sequence.
The first of these machines, designed as an aid to statistical
analysis, was invented in 1872 by Charles Seaton, then chief
clerk of the United States Bureau of the Census. This was followed
in 1887 by the work of Dr. Herman Hollerith, also a Census Bureau
official, who adapted a punched-paper control system to statistical
work. His punched-card methods, together with those developed
in 1890 by another American, James Powers, laid the groundwork
for the now-familiar punched-card tabulating systems.
Electronic Computers. As early as 1919, electronics came
tentatively onto the scene, when an article by W. H. Eccles
and F. W. Jordan, published in the first issue of Radio Review,
described an electronic "trigger circuit" that could be used
for automatic counting. But the Eccles-Jordan circuit, like
the Babbage difference engine, was ahead of its time.
Then came World War II. Under the pressure of military needs
for ballistics data on newly developed weapons, the new science
of electronic data processing came into its own. The intensive
effort of those years produced two basic types of electronic
computers - analog and digital - and the distinction is an important
one to bear in mind, Analog systems differ from digital ones
in that they use varying physical and electrical magnitudes
(voltages, light intensities, shaft positions and the like)
as factors analogous to mathematical values, rather than pulses
representing actual numbers.
Just as the abacus is a simple digital computer, the slide
rule (on which mathematical values are expressed in terms of
linear relationships) is an analog device. So is the automobile
speedometer, whose mechanism does not actually count the revolutions
of the wheel and repeatedly divide to determine the number of
miles per hour, but rather senses the rate of revolution and
interprets that rate in terms of a reading on a miles-per-hour
Most of the wartime needs were for analog computers, many
of which were successfully built under government contract at
a number of American universities. In certain cases, however,
machines were required which would provide answers to ballistics
equations faster and with greater precision than analog systems
were capable of doing. It was the attempt to fulfill these specifications
that gave rise to the development of digital computing systems.
In 1944, at Harvard University, Dr. H. H. Aiken completed
a semi-electronic system called the Automatic Sequence Controlled
Calculator, known also as the Harvard Mark I, for the Navy's
Bureau of Ordnance. And in the next few years Dr. Aiken built
three improved models, known as the Harvard II, Mark III and
The ENIAC. Meanwhile, a second major contribution was progressing
at the University of Pennsylvania's Moore School of Engineering.
Early in 1943, an associate professor of electronics named Dr.
J. W. Mauchly gave the Army Ordnance department the design for
a general-purpose, allelectronic digital computer called the
ENIAC, which was ultimately completed in 1945. The first problem
assigned to the ENIAC was a calculation in nuclear physics which
would have taken 100 man-years to solve by conventional methods.
The ENIAC came up with the answer in two weeks, of which only
two hours were spent in actual computation, the remainder being
devoted to operational details and reviews of the results.
ENIAC, the first "all-electronic" digital
computer, was installed in 1945 at the University of Pennsylvania.
ENIAC represented the first major break with the past in
that it was entirely electronic except for its means of "input"
and "output" (the process of feeding data into the machine and
of delivering the results); unlike the Mark I, however, it was
not automatically sequenced. Modern computers can thus be said
to have evolved from a wedding of the techniques employed in
ENIAC and Mark I.
Other pioneer work during the war and immediate postwar years
included projects at such organizations as: Princeton's Institute
for Advanced Study, where outstanding developments were made
by the late Dr. John von Neumann; Bell Laboratories: M.I.T.;
and the National Bureau of Standards.
Enter Univac. After the war, Dr. Mauchly joined in partnership
with Prof. J. Presper Eckert, who had been chief engineer of
the ENIAC project, and the two men formed a company in Philadelphia
to develop new computers and promote their use in commercial
applications. The Eckert-Mauchly firm, which later became a
subsidiary of Remington Rand Inc. (now, in turn, a division
of Sperry Rand Corporation), was responsible for the development
of the Univac in 1950.
The modern trend in computer design is typified
by Remington Rand's latest Univac model. Use of transistors
makes the entire system extremely compact and even more reliable
than tube-operated computers.
Generally regarded as the most successful electronic data
processor in the world today, and certainly the most famous,
the large-scale Univac system was the first to handle both numerical
and alphabetical information equally well. It was also the first
to divorce the complex input and output problems from the actual
computation operation. Particularly important was another major
innovation from an earlier Eckert-Mauchly model: the Univac
was wholly self-checking. It checked its own accuracy in each
step of each computation and thus eliminated the need for running
problems through a second time for verification. With the Univac,
electronic data processing came of age.
The many post-Univac computers produced in the past few years
have further opened a new era in man's ability to organize and
make use of factual information. Electronic computation has
already brought about substantial changes in patterns of living,
and scarcely a week goes by without someone's finding a new
use for computers, a new way in which electronic data automation
can be applied to eliminate the drudgery of making complex calculations
"by hand." Meanwhile, rapid strides are being made in the further
refinement and development of computers themselves, particularly
in the miniaturization and improvement of their components through
the use of smaller and more reliable transistors, resistors,
Proper Perspective. In the first tumult of publicity about
computers during the early fifties (particularly when the Univac
won national prominence for successfully predicting the outcome
of the 1952 Presidential election), the misleading term "giant
brain" caused a good deal of confusion-and some uneasiness -
with its implication that science had given birth to a thinking
device superior to the human mind. Nowadays, most people know
better. They know that, by human standards, the "giant brain"
is a talented "idiot," that it is wholly dependent on instructions
and thus can't really think at all-that it is, in other words,
only a machine. This simmering down of the public's "gee-whiz"
attitude toward computers is a healthy sign, for no tool can
ever be truly useful if it inspires awe in its users instead
To the same end, it's a good idea to think of the computer
in its historical perspective - not as an overnight phenomenon,
but as the fruit of a practical science with its roots far in
the past. Pascal, Leibnitz, Babbage and the others, if they
were alive today, would probably not be astonished by the "miracle"
of electronic data processing. More likely, they would simply
be pleased to find that their pioneer work had been brought
Posted September 29, 2011