Rise of the Machines: A Brief History of Computers

This morning, I heard my phone beep. I looked to see who was trying to reach me. It was a video call from my son, Xavier. Even though he lives across the country, we video chatted for a few minutes. I was able to see the new school clothes he was wearing – through my phone! It was a great feeling to be a part of his morning and to be able to see him even though he was 1400 miles away. How is this even possible? Through COMPUTER TECHNOLOGY – the force that drives our global society.

There have been four major development phases or “generations” of computer evolution – each with different characteristics and technological breakthroughs. Each generation has served to accelerate technological development. Through these generations, three technological breakthroughs have forever changed the engineering of computers: the Transistor, the Integrated Circuit, and the Microprocessor. Each breakthrough spurred the production of the next generation of computers, making future devices smaller, faster, less expensive and more powerful than previous generations.

First Generation (1945-1949):

Invented for military and scientific purposes, first generation computers appeared in the 1940s. They were enormous and used large, cumbersome vacuum tubes for circuitry. One of the first was the ENIAC, a monster of a machine. It weighed more than 27 tons and was roughly 1800 square feet. To put it in perspective, it was about half the size of a football field – packed with equipment. It consumed 150 kW of power – enough electricity to illuminate an entire city. The ENIAC is currently memorialized as an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.

Second Generation (1960 – 1964):

Between 1960 and 1964, second generation computers were built using transistors. A transistor is a tiny semiconductor switch that opens or closes a circuit. This tiny semiconductor replaced the inefficient, cumbersome, monstrous vacuum tubes, significantly reducing the size of the computer. Mainframe computers are examples of second generation computers — very large and capable of supporting hundreds or thousands of users simultaneously. They were mostly used in businesses, universities, and governmental organizations due to their extreme size and cost.

Third Generation (1964 – 1975):

An explosion in the use of computers began in 1964. This was possible with the invention of the integrated circuit. Integrated circuits are miniature transistors that were placed on a tiny silicon chip. Silicon is the basic material used to make computer chips and is one of the most abundant elements on Earth after oxygen. The diameter of a silicon chip is about the

the width of a human hair. With the advent of the integrated circuit, there was a dramatic reduction in the size and cost of computers. Mini computers were developed and became available to small and medium sized businesses.

Fourth Generation (1975 – present):

In 1975, the invention that brought to fruition the next generation of computers and totally changed the landscape is the microprocessor – the “brain” of the computer. With the advent of the microprocessor, the cost to create a computer system dropped even more dramatically. Computers become even smaller and more powerful – and, for the first time – they were affordable and accessible to a mass audience – desktops.

The Present and Future

Today, it is difficult to envision how we can manage without the countless computer devices that we use on a daily basis, from smart phones, tablets, flat and curved TVs, to electric cars, advanced medical devices, and navigational systems. Computers are still evolving and changing. We are finding new ways to make them even smaller than ever before with more complex functionality.

In the not-so-distant future, you may hear this from your doctor: “Take two of these ingestible computers and they will e-mail me in the morning.” Although these tiny devices are not yet mainstream, some people are already swallowing them to monitor a range of health issues and through computer technology, this data is shared with their doctor.

In the future, everything will be operated by computers. These next generation computers will be based on Artificial Intelligence, which is the capacity of a computer to perform operations comparable to human decision-making. Computers will understand spoken words and imitate human reasoning, even more and better than Siri – the built in intelligent assistant from Apple.


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