Who can imagine a world without a computer and Internet today? It has revolutionized every aspect of our modern life. I have always been curious about when and who invented the first ever computer and began the story of the automated computing machines, that has culminated in the invention of portable laptops and supercomputers of today.
The answer to this question is not at all simple, because of two reasons. One reason is that there is no one person, who did it all and figured it out on his own. The credit for the development of the modern computer belongs to many people. The second reason the answer is not so simple is because of the fact that definitions of what constitutes a computer, differ considerably. Here, we talk about the pioneers of the idea of building automated computing machines of various types.
Some of the earliest known computing or calculating devices are the abacus, slide rule, Astrolabe, and the Antikythera mechanism. In the following discussion, by 'computer', we mean a programmable contraption, that can provide certain output, after processing raw input, supplied to it.
Charles Babbage (1791-1871) designed one of the first automatic calculation machines, called the difference engine or analytical engine. However, he did not build it actually and only theorized its mechanism, which was later verified by building of a working model.
The First Programmable Computer
The first programmable computer was developed by Konrad Zuse of Germany, between 1936 to 1938. It was the first electric computer, that was binary programmable.
The First Electronic Digital Computer
The first electronic computer was invented by Professor John Vincent Atanasoff and his student, Cliff Berry. It was called the Atanasoff-Berry computer (ABC for short), and was developed at the Iowa State College, between 1937 and 1942.
A close second in the race to develop the first fully electronic digital computer, was the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer), conceptualized and developed by J. Presper Eckert, and John Mauchly, between 1943 and 1946, at Pennsylvania University. ENIAC weighed 50 tons, occupied 1,800 square feet and had around 18,000 vacuum tubes installed inside. Needless to say, developing and building it in four years was a superb job.
It was used in making the calculations for development of the first Hydrogen bomb. The ENIAC couldn't store programs however, which was remedied by the development of the EDVAC (Electronic Discrete Variable Computer). This successor of the ENIAC could store programs.
The first commercially, mass produced computer was the UNIVAC I (Universal Automatic Computer), developed by Remington Rand in 1951. Each of the 46 machines that were sold, used 125 kW of power, 5200 vacuum tubes, and cost more than a million dollars. It was used for vote counting and picking up presidential winners.
After the invention of the silicon-based transistor, by John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley in 1947-48 and the development of the microchip, miniaturization of computers was initiated, which made the development of personal computers possible. Today, billions of transistors are carved on a silicon chip to create the brain of the computer, which is the chip.
Let me share another bit of information. The inventor of the computer mouse is Douglas Engelbart, who developed the first prototype in 1963.
Today, the challenge before scientists and engineers, is developing not just faster programmable computers, but machines that can think for themselves. Yes, I am talking about the challenge of artificial intelligence, which is the next stage in the evolution of computing machines.