History of computing

The history of computing hardware\ is the record of the ongoing effort to make computer hardware faster, cheaper, and capable of storing more data.

Computing hardware evolved from machines that needed separate manual action to perform each arithmetic operation, to punched card machines, and then to stored-program computers. The history of stored-program computers relates first to computer architecture, that is, the organization of the units to perform input and output, to store data and to operate as an integrated mechanism (see block diagram to the right). Secondly, this is a history of the electronic components and mechanical devices that comprise these units. Finally, we describe the continuing integration of 21st-century supercomputers, networks, personal devices, and integrated computers/communicators into many aspects of today’s society. Increases in speed and memory capacity, and decreases in cost and size in relation to compute power, are major features of the history. As all computers rely on digital storage, and tend to be limited by the size and speed of memory, the history of computer data storage is tied to the development of computers


Before the development of the general-purpose computer, most calculations were done by humans. Mechanical tools to help humans with digital calculations were then called “calculating machines”, by proprietary names, or even as they are now, calculators. It was those humans who used the machines who were then called computers; there are pictures of enormous rooms filled with desks at which computers (often young women) used their machines to jointly perform calculations, as for instance, aerodynamic ones required for in aircraft design.

Calculators have continued to develop, but computers add the critical element of conditional response and larger memory, allowing automation of both numerical calculation and in general, automation of many symbol-manipulation tasks. Computer technology has undergone profound changes every decade since the 1940s.

Computing hardware has become a platform for uses other than mere computation, such as process automation, electronic communications, equipment control, entertainment, education, etc. Each field in turn has imposed its own requirements on the hardware, which has evolved in response to those requirements, such as the role of the touch screen to create a more intuitive and natural user interface.

Aside from written numerals, the first aids to computation were purely mechanical devices which required the operator to set up the initial values of an elementary arithmetic operation, then manipulate the device to obtain the result. A sophisticated (and comparatively recent) example is the slide rule in which numbers are represented as lengths on a logarithmic scale and computation is performed by setting a cursor and aligning sliding scales, thus adding those lengths. Numbers could be represented in a continuous “analog” form, for instance a voltage or some other physical property was set to be proportional to the number. Analog computers, like those designed and built by Vannevar Bush before World War II were of this type. Numbers could be represented in the form of digits, automatically manipulated by a mechanical mechanism. Although this last approach required more complex mechanisms in many cases, it made for greater precision of results.

Both analog and digital mechanical techniques continued to be developed, producing many practical computing machines. Electrical methods rapidly improved the speed and precision of calculating machines, at first by providing motive power for mechanical calculating devices, and later directly as the medium for representation of numbers. Numbers could be represented by voltages or currents and manipulated by linear electronic amplifiers. Or, numbers could be represented as discrete binary or decimal digits, and electrically controlled switches and combinational circuits could perform mathematical operations.

The invention of electronic amplifiers made calculating machines much faster than their mechanical or electromechanical predecessors. Vacuum tube (thermionic valve) amplifiers gave way to solid state transistors, and then rapidly to integrated circuits which continue to improve, placing millions of electrical switches (typically transistors) on a single elaborately manufactured piece of semi-conductor the size of a fingernail. By defeating the tyranny of numbers, integrated circuits made high-speed and low-cost digital computers a widespread commodity.

Earliest true hardware

Devices have been used to aid computation for thousands of years, mostly using one-to-one correspondence with our fingers. The earliest counting device was probably a form of tally stick. Later record keeping aids throughout the Fertile Crescent included calculi (clay spheres, cones, etc.) which represented counts of items, probably livestock or grains, sealed in containers. The use of counting rods is one example.

The abacus was early used for arithmetic tasks. What we now call the Roman abacus was used in Babylonia as early as 2400 BC. Since then, many other forms of reckoning boards or tables have been invented. In a medieval European counting house, a checkered cloth would be placed on a table, and markers moved around on it according to certain rules, as an aid to calculating sums of money.

Several analog computers were constructed in ancient and medieval times to perform astronomical calculations. These include the Antikythera mechanism and the astrolabe from ancient Greece (c. 150–100 BC), which are generally regarded as the earliest known mechanical analog computers. Hero of Alexandria (c. 10–70 AD) made many complex mechanical devices including automata and a programmable cart. Other early versions of mechanical devices used to perform one or another type of calculations include the planisphere and other mechanical computing devices invented by Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī (c. AD 1000); the equatorium and universal latitude-independent astrolabe by Abū Ishāq Ibrāhīm al-Zarqālī (c. AD 1015); the astronomical analog computers of other medieval Muslim astronomers and engineers; and the astronomical clock tower of Su Song (c. AD 1090) during the Song Dynasty.

Scottish mathematician and physicist John Napier noted multiplication and division of numbers could be performed by addition and subtraction, respectively, of logarithms of those numbers. While producing the first logarithmic tables Napier needed to perform many multiplications, and it was at this point that he designed Napier’s bones, an abacus-like device used for multiplication and division. Since real numbers can be represented as distances or intervals on a line, the slide rule was invented in the 1620s to allow multiplication and division operations to be carried out significantly faster than was previously possible.Slide rules were used by generations of engineers and other mathematically involved professional workers, until the invention of the pocket calculator.

Wilhelm Schickard, a German polymath, designed a calculating clock in 1623; unfortunately, a fire destroyed it during its construction in 1624 and Schickard abandoned the project. Two sketches of it were discovered in 1957, too late to have any impact on the development of mechanical calculators.

In 1642, while still a teenager, Blaise Pascal started some pioneering work on calculating machines and after three years of effort and 50 prototypes he invented the mechanical calculator. He built twenty of these machines (called the Pascaline) in the following ten years.

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz invented the Stepped Reckoner and his famous cylinders around 1672 while adding direct multiplication and division to the Pascaline. Leibniz once said “It is unworthy of excellent men to lose hours like slaves in the labour of calculation which could safely be relegated to anyone else if machines were used.”

Around 1820, Charles Xavier Thomas created the first successful, mass-produced mechanical calculator, the Thomas Arithmometer, that could add, subtract, multiply, and divide. It was mainly based on Leibniz’ work. Mechanical calculators, like the base-ten addiator, the comptometer, the Monroe, the Curta and the Addo-X remained in use until the 1970s. Leibniz also described the binary numeral system, a central ingredient of all modern computers. However, up to the 1940s, many subsequent designs (including Charles Babbage‘s machines of the 1822 and even ENIAC of 1945) were based on the decimal system; ENIAC’s ring counters emulated the operation of the digit wheels of a mechanical adding machine.

In Japan, Ryōichi Yazu patented a mechanical calculator called the Yazu Arithmometer in 1903. It consisted of a single cylinder and 22 gears, and employed the mixed base-2 and base-5 number system familiar to users to the soroban (Japanese abacus). Carry and end of calculation were determined automatically. More than 200 units were sold, mainly to government agencies such as the Ministry of War and agricultural experiment stations.

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