Technology: 1944-2004: It All Started with a Big, Big Calculator

By Hartley, Darin E. | Talent Development, May 2004 | Go to article overview

Technology: 1944-2004: It All Started with a Big, Big Calculator


Hartley, Darin E., Talent Development


In honor of ASTD's 60th anniversary, I thought it would be interesting to step back in time 60 years and take a look at some technologies of 1944, and compare them with some of today's technologies.

Key innovations of 1944

Sixty years ago, some pivotal patents, inventions, and discoveries were made that are tied to current technologies and, in some cases, current learning technologies. Cultural readiness issues related to technology were also coming to the forefront. Harvard University researcher Howard Aiken and Grace Hopper invented the first programmable calculator, the Mark I, in 1944. It was a tremendous advance for the time. It not only did basic mathematical calculations, but also higher-level and higher-function math calculations. This calculator was a behemoth, measuring 55 feet long and 8 feet high. It weighed 5 tons and had 760,000 pieces. It took three to five seconds to complete a multiplication operation, dauntingly slow by current standards. Aiken predicted in 1947 that "only six electronic digital computers would be needed to satisfy the computing needs of the entire United States." Hopper was the first person to coin the word "bug" for a computer error. A moth caused a hardware fault in the Mark I, and Hopper was the first person to "debug" a computer.

Fast-forward to 2004

Calculators are ubiquitous across the landscape. There are scientific calculators, mathematical calculators, financial calculators, and a gamut of other specialized calculators for an endless set of functions and reasons. Calculators come in all shapes and sizes and can be free or cost thousands of dollars. Basic mathematical calculators are so cheap to produce now that they're often given away by companies as a marketing tool.

Do you want to know if it's the right time to refinance your home? How much can you qualify for a loan? Just go to one of the thousands of sites that contain mortgage calculators and the like: e-loan.com, mortgage.com, wamu.com, e-trade.com. Looking to know how much salary you'll have to make in Jacksonville, Florida, to equate to your old job in Provo, Utah? Go to homefair.com or a host of other salary calculators and answer the simple questions in the tool.

Are you trying to wade through the morass of Internal Revenue Service regulations to know how much you need to pay or how much your refund will be? Use one of the many tax software programs, which are really high-end and complex calculators that use IRS regulations and heuristics to help you complete your tax returns. Many new automobiles have on-board calculators baked in to help you determine miles per gallon, miles until you have to add gas, and so forth.

The world of workplace learning and performance has its own set of calculators, which are oftentimes part of spreadsheets, LMSs, or Web-based tools. For example, return-on-investment calculators and courseware development cost calculators focus on helping practitioners provide summary data calculations on related issues and concerns.

The key theme for all of the calculator types mentioned (there are thousands more) is that they are embedded into real-world problems and issues. When first conceived, the Mark I probably didn't have as many practical applications and, because of its development cost, was unlikely to have ubiquitous use. Think about the various ways you use embedded calculators in your daily life.

The magnetic tape recorder was a phenomenal invention. It was the basis for end-user control later in history. Phonograph technology had already been invented by 1944, but it wasn't readily accessible for the average person.

The U.S. Navy had great interest in this technology as a way to record German U-boat radio messages. In fact, a couple of the earliest magnetic tape recorders were recovered from Germany in 1944, and became the basis for continued development of this technology for many years. …

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