The treatment of computers presents difficulties that have already been encountered with other topics, such as space flight and atomic power: their social impact is a part of the history of the second, rather than the first, part of this century, although their roots can be traced back much earlier. In the case of computers this difficulty applies with full force to the electronic devices that now dominate the scene, for the first commercial electronic computer (UNIVAC I) was not made until 1951. We must recognize, however, that mechanical and electro-mechanical calculating devices have a far longer history and that some important innovations were made in this field in the first half of the century.
Today, and even in 1950, the term computer is a misnomer, for it implies a calculating device. The role of the modern computer, and some of its mechanical predecessors, is, however, much wider than this, for it is widely used for the processing, storage, and retrieval of information of all kinds. It was, indeed, the need to analyse the results of the US Census of 1890 that inspired the Hollerith punched-card system.
Calculating devices are almost as old as mathematics; the Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians used a simple counting board known as the abacus. The Chinese and Japanese had similar devices in which counters were slid along a series of parallel rods or grooves. It is interesting to note that as late as 1946, almost at the end of our period, an American skilled in the use of the best available electric desk calculator failed in competition with a Japanese clerk using the traditional soroban.
The true ancestor of modern calculators is an adding machine invented by Blaise Pascal in 1642. Like many of its successors it depended on a series of interconnected dials numbered from 0 to 9 and corresponding to units, tens, hundreds, thousands, etc. A complete revolution of one dial effected onetenth of a revolution of the next highest one and so on. The machine could be used for multiplication by repeatedly adding the multiplicand (number to be multiplied) to itself the necessary number of times (17 x 3 = 17 + 17 + 17). Thirty years later the mathematical philosopher Leibniz made a greatly improved machine, with a register to store the multiplicand, which was much more positive in action. The interaction
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Book title: A Short History of Twentieth-Century Technology c. 1900-c. 1950. Contributors: Trevor I. Williams - Author. Publisher: Clarendon Press. Place of publication: Oxford. Publication year: 1982. Page number: 341.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.