History of Computing

The first computers were actually people - computer was the term used for people whose job it was to perform scientific calculations rapidly and accurately.

Alan Turing (1912 - 1954)

Image: Picture of Turing from http://www.turing.org.uk/turing/Turing.html Alan Turing was one of the founders of Computer Science. He developed an abstract model of a computer called a Turing machine before there actually were physical computers. A Turing machine is theoretically capable of doing any calculation that today's supercomputers can. Although he was British, he introduced his abstract model in 1936 at Princeton University.

One of the most important things Alan Turing did was work during WW2 to break the German coding machine called the Enigma. The Germans were very efficient in their fighting because they could send encoded radio messages that no one else could decipher all over the world. Alan Turing and a team of mathematicians were eventually able to decipher the messages which led to the end of WW2.

The highest prize in the field of Computer Science is named the Turing award after Alan Turing. It is awarded by the ACM, Association for Computing Machinery.


The ENIAC - Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer - was the first usable electronic computer. It was completed in 1946 at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. The computer took up a whole room and consisted of many cabinents of vacuum tubes - two years later tranistors were invented and eventually used instead of vacuum tubes.

The funding for the development of the ENIAC was obtained during WW2 as a means to calculate ballistic tables for the trajectory of projectiles when the war moved into North Africa where the terrain was much different than Europe and the old tables weren't valid. By the time the ENIAC was operational, WW2 had ended. The ENIAC was eventually used for peaceful purposes like the tabulation of U.S. Census Data.

John Von Neumann (1903 - 1957)

All of the instructions that made the ENIAC work were hard-wired. Each time a new sequence of instructions (that is, a program) was needed, the machine was rewired. A Hungarian scientist by the name of John Von Neumann came up with the idea of storing the program in the computer itself. His early work was also done at Princeton in the 1940's. The stored-program machine architecture carries his name. Almost all computers in use today are based on the von Neumann model of stored programs and use an architecture that he helped develop in the early years of computing. John Von Neumann also helped develop the atomic bomb as part of the Manhatten project.

Grace Hopper (1906 - 1992)

The first computer bug was a real bug - a moth caught in a relay switch in the Mark II, a huge electomechanical computer at Harvard Univiersity in 1947. That is where the term "debugging" a program comes from. Grace Hopper is credited with the first documented computer bug. She also devoped the first compiler, while working at Remington in 1952.

Ada Lovelace (1815 - 1852)

Ada Lovelace was the daughter of Lord Byron and worked with Charles Babbage on his mechanical computing machines called the Difference Engine and Analytical Engine. She is considered by some people to be the world's first programmer and the programming language developed by the U.S. Department of Defense was named Ada in her honor.

Commercial Computers

The first commercial computers developed in the 1950's were called mainframes and were large and very expensive. IBM was the primary manufacturer of mainframe computers in the 1960's and 70's.

Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) came out with the first mini-computer called the PDP-8 in 1965. The PDP 11/34 and PDP 11/70 were 16 bit machines. In 1978, the first 32-bit minicomputer was developed by DEC and called the VAX. Now Nintendo makes the N64, a 64-bit machine!

Nintendo History:

In 1978, Ted Hoff, at Intel Corporation, was working on a chip for a manufacturer of electronic calculators. He realized that it would be a better idea to develop a general-purpose chip that could be programmed rather than do a custom design for each calculator. This was the birth of the microprocessor which was used in micro-computers. One of the earliest micro-computers was built in the garage of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. This was the beginning of Apple Corporation. The first Apple computer did not even have lowercase letters so it could not be used for word processing. The first big application to run on the Apple was VisiCalc which was a spreadsheet program.

Later IBM introduced its Personal Computer which is where the name PC comes from. IBM did not provide an operating system for its PC's. Bill Gates, CEO of Microsoft Corp. and the richest person in the U.S., developed a simple operating system named DOS (Disk Operating Systems) for IBM's PC's.

The Internet

The beginning of the internet was something called the ARPAnet, a network of computers at universities that was funded by the Advanced Research Planning Agency of the U.S. Dept. of Defense. It allowed a researcher at one institution to use a computer at a different institution to execute programs. However, the network quickly became used for electronic mail or email. Much of the work on the internet was done at Berkeley in the early 70's. In the 90's the internet went public. A student at the University of Illinois, Marc Andreessen, released a browser for HTTP (HyperText Protocol) to navigate the internet. The Browser was named Mosaic. It was the forerunner of Netscape.

High Level Languages

Programmers have been using High Level Languages (HLLs) for many years to make programming easier. The type of programming that was done was generally "procedural". Around 1985, a Bell Labs employee invented a special high level language that was "object-oriented". The inventor was Bjarne Stroustrup and the language was called C++. Bjarne Stroustrup was awarded the ACM Grace Murray Hopper award for fundamental contributions made to computer science by work done before the age of 30.


The Java language was developed at Sun Microsystems by James Gosling. He originally called the language Oak after an oak tree that was outside his office at Sun. It was later discovered that there was already a programming language called Oak. When a group of Sun people visited a local coffee place, the name Java was suggested and it stuck. Java was originally developed for programming intelligent consumer electronic devices. But it was discovered that Java could be used to write programs called applets that could be used by web developers to provide animation and interaction on web pages. Java was announced as a programming language in 1995.