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Computer History Essay, Research Paper


Computers affect the lives of nearly everyone living today. No matter where it is that someone calls their home; there is almost a certainty that they have some sort of daily interaction with computers or some kind of computer driven device. Every morning, millions of people of every field imaginable go off to work and start up their computers. These daily activities occur often without much thought, but there are more than just minor factors that have led up to the development of today’s computer.

Through research and advances made as early as the late nineteenth century, and even before that in some instances, today’s computer related technologies have emerged. A major influence in the development of what is now known as the computer were made by the United States military in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The needs of the military at the time required that a system be created that could aid in the aiming of ballistic military equipment. Today s modern computers are undoubtedly the result of the United States military s early developments and technological advancements in computing. Because of the military s need for the computer earlier this century, great advancements have been, and will continue to be made in the way of computers and other technologies.

Truly the first computers, or tools made with the intention of being used for calculating, were made many centuries ago. Throughout history, people have used a diverse array of devices to help them do both simple and complex calculations. Tools have varied from fingers to computers. Tools such as the abacus have aided men for many centuries in doing math. They have simplified complicated tasks, and have, in some instances, even made it possible to avoid doing certain manual tasks. However, one of the most deserving devices of praise is the common computer of today. The electronic computers now in use gain much of their influence from the United States military s work from earlier this century (Beveridge).

From Military Needs to Every Desktop

A major advocate during the early and middle parts of this century of computer technology and advancement was the military. It was interested in the computer primarily for its ability to greatly improve accuracy in missile shots. Many different people, along with the creation and advancement of technologies, were needed in order for the military s ambition for the use of computer capabilities to be accomplished. Several of the key people involved in the advancement of computers and some of the technologies resulting are discussed in some of the following articles.

Several events and inventions from early this century paved the road for the development that would later occur by the United States military. One example is that of Vannevar Bush. Bush invented a large-scale differential analyzer, a device that was a precursor to the computer. The 1930 s saw the first of the electronic computers. In 1935, a scientist named Konrad Zuse developed the Z-1 computer. Soon thereafter, in 1936, John Vincent Atanasoff and John Berry developed the Atanasoff-Berry computer. Later developments made by Bell Telephone Lab led to the creation of the Complex Number Calculator in 1939. Though many of these advancements were helpful, they lacked what was needed by the United States military. However, soon the military would be drawn to the possibilities that were offered by computers (Beveridge).

Prior to the start of the Second World War, the United States military gained much interest in the potential that the newly developing computers of the time had to offer. Though quite primitive by today s standards, the military saw that there was much possibility in the computers capabilities and advantage that could be gained through the use of computers. During the time of World War I, there were only analog computer systems available. These differ from modern computers in that they are more mechanical than they are electronic. The function of the analog computers in the first of the World Wars was to calculate a torpedoes course when launched from a submarine. Additionally, some analog systems were used for the purpose of bombsights in war aircraft.

Howard Hathaway Aiken (1900 – 1973), a Harvard University mathematician, and Grace Hopper (Naval Reserve officer) initiated many of the developments that have been made in the way of computers this century. Their collaborative work on the Harvard MARK I, which is considered to be the first digital computer, began in the early 1940 s. By 1944, Howard Hathaway Aiken and Grace Hopper had built an electro-mechanical computer, which was to be used by the United States Navy for calculating the ballistics of the missiles it used in war (Gfrorer).

The Harvard MARK series of computers had its beginnings in the 1940 s. The MARK series of computers pre-dates the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer (ENIAC), which is one of the better-known computers in history, by several years. The MARK I was constructed of mechanical adding machine parts. In order to make the MARK computer perform a task, a roll of punched paper tape had to be fed into the machine. This required lots of time, and it slowed the process down quite substantially.

In 1945, however, a computer system was built that could store the instructions that were needed in order to function. It was built based upon the work of a Hungarian-American named John von Neumann (a mathematician just as Howard Hathaway Aiken was). Now Since the computer could store its instructions in memory, the entire process took much less time. Time restrictions that were the result of feeding rolls of punched paper into the computer were eliminated. In addition to this, the memory allowed for the problems to be solved without having to rewire the computer.

A University of Pennsylvania engineer, John Presper Eckert, Jr., and his colleague, John William Mauchly, a physicist, developed the first all electronic computer (ENIAC) in 1946. The ENIAC used 18,000 vacuum tubes. It could perform only several hundred multiplications per minute, which is a relatively very small number by today s standards, but for the time, it was quite state of the art. In order to change the end result of a program, manual rewiring had to be done into the processor.

With the advent of the transistor in the late 1950 s, computer systems could be reduced greatly in their size. The total cost relating to the operation of the computer was also greatly reduced. This one development led too much smaller components, smaller inter-component spacing, and lower costs to build a machine. An additional feature that allowed for computers of the time to undergo a change for the better was the use of magnetic rings as a form of memory. Up to that time, computers had stored memory by means of acoustical delay lines or magnetic spots being written on drums. The use of magnetic rings employed a technique of recording clockwise in order to represent a 1, or counter clockwise, interpreted as meaning a 0, binary code (White 31). By the end of the 1960 s, the integrated circuit had been introduced. The integrated circuit made it possible for many transistors to be fabricated on a silicon chip ( Young Scientist: Computers 88). This led directly to the development of the microprocessor in the 1970 s ( Computer 76).


All of the developments made in this century caused the computer to go from a gothic giant that required a room full of employees and dozens to operate to a small machine that could fit on the top of almost any desk. Many of the developments that allowed for this transition resulted because of a push by the military of the day to make machines that could aid in making weapons work more accurately. The effects of the military s needs for a computer system that could do all this has impacted the way corporations, schools, and homes operate down to this day. Many of the advancements that were made out of pure need at the time are in use today to help us at everyday tasks. Without the military having played such a key part in the development of computers, there is no doubt that systems and technologies that are in existence today would not be.

Works Cited

Beveridge, Denis. History of Computing Devices. 21 Jan. 1999


Gfrorer, Dirk. History of Computers. 21 Jan. 1999


White, Ron. How Computers Work Second Edition.

California: Ziff-Davis P, 1995.

Young Scientist: Computers.

Illinois: World Book, Inc. 1991.

Computer. Funk and Wagnall s New Encyclopedia.

1976 ed.

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