Full version The History Of Computers

The History Of Computers

This print version free essay The History Of Computers.

Category: Technology

Autor: reviewessays 04 December 2010

Words: 2311 | Pages: 10


The purpose of this paper is to highlight the history of the personal computer. The research in this paper shows that personal computers were not met with a warm reception when they were first introduced. Personal computers or PC’s have impacted the culture and the way that people live their ordinary lives. At first, computers were huge mainframe computers that had to be built on site and were only used for business. The invention of the PC made it easier for people to create new hobbies, store information, or perform mathematical duties that were almost always done by hand. The invention of the PC opened the door for its younger generation; such as laptop computers and Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs).

“Who invented the computer?" is not a question with a simple answer. The real answer is that many inventors contributed to the history of computers and that a computer is a complex piece of machinery made up of many parts, each of which can be considered a separate invention. The personal computer has revolutionized business and personal activities and even the way people talk and think; however, its development has been less of a revolution than an evolution and convergence of three critical elements - thought, hardware, and software. Although the PC traces its lineage to the mainframe and minicomputers of the 1950s and 1960s, the conventional thought that was prevalent during the first thirty years of the computer age saw no value in a small computer that could be used by individuals.

When researching the history of the PC many sources claim that the MITS Altair 8800 was the first computer. The Altair, introduced in January 1975, was the first computer to be produced in fairly high quantity, and it was the first computer to run Microsoft software. Upon further research it was found that in fact, the first personal computer was created in 1950. It was named Simon. Edmund Berkeley first described Simon in his 1949 book, "Giant Brains, or Machines That Think" and went on to publish plans to build Simon in a series of Radio Electronics issues in 1950 and 1951. By 1959, 400 Simon computers were sold (Veit, p.38). By 1960, the computer was king. Companies hired armies of technicians and programmers to write its operating programs and software, fix it, and allocate the precious computer time. The capability of the machines was more than a mere mortal could fathom, but gathering raw data and "keying" it in so the computer could "crunch the numbers" was a complicated and time-consuming task.

Frustrations abounded, computer errors were called "glitches," and the phrases "garbage in/garbage out," "It's a computer mistake," and "Sorry, the computer's down and we can't do anything," were introduced into the lexicon.

The turnabout for computers came in 1968. Two engineers for Fairchild Electronics decided to set out on their own and open an electronics firm. Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore began a small company called the Intel Corporation. The company started with only 12 employees and the first year’s revenues were only $2,672.00. The focus of their company was initially semiconductor computer memory. They developed a number of these chips because they were practical and affordable. In 1971 an event happened that has changed the world, and set off the microcomputer revolution (Shirley, p. 24).

Intel was approached by a Japanese calculator company called Busicom about designing a set of chips for a programmable calculator and advanced Intel $60,000 for the project. The original design that they were given was for multiple custom chips, but one of Intel’s engineers, Ted Hoff, thought the plan was too complex. He developed a single-chip, a general purpose logic device that would retrieve its instructions form semiconductor memory. From his design the Intel 4004 microprocessor was created. This device was only 1/8 inch wide and 1/6 inch long, but it contained as much computing power as the ENIAC, a room sized mainframe of the time. Intel purchased the rights for its product back from the Japanese firm. This small chip was a key development in the history of the personal computer (Pask, p.256). Intel priced this new chip, the 4004, at an astonishing low price of $200. This allowed electronic hobbyists to purchase it for “homebrew” computer clubs. One such hobbyist was Steven Wozniak. He and his friend, Steven Jobs were both electronics enthusiasts that work for Silicon Valley companies. Wozniak liked to dabble in computer and electronic projects, so he began the design for the Apple I in 1976. It wasn’t really taken serious by the market, but his next design, the Apple II became an instant hit. It was the first computer to come in a plastic case, and included color graphics (Thorne, p.289). Apple introduced the floppy disk drive in 1978, allowing Apple II users to store data on something other than the cumbersome and unreliable tape cassettes that had been used up to that point.

IBM, the world leader in computers of the time wanted to cash in on the new personal computer craze. Their engineers began developing a computer, but they needed software to run on it. They were running out of time to beat the deadline, so they decided to find another company to develop the software for them. Someone suggested a small company called “Microsoft”. When Bill Gates was initially approached about the project, Gates was unsure if Microsoft could complete the large, complex program within the deadline, so he directed them to a competitor, Digital Research. As luck would have it IBM was unable to come to an agreement with this company and returned to Microsoft. Gates decided to take on the project (Wallace 167-171). Since he didn’t have time to create the operating system from scratch, he decided to buy the rights to a rudimentary system from a programmer in Seattle named Patterson. He paid $50,000 for the program. He then cleaned it up and modified it to work for IBM. He named his program QDOS, or “Quick and Dirty Operating System” (Wallace 182-3). After IBM released their initial PC, many spin-off “IBM compatibles” flooded the market. These clones helped to expand the PC market because they were offered at lower prices.

The Sinclair ZX-80 PC, which hit the market in 1980, used the same Z-80 chip as Commodore's PET and the Tandy TRS-80. The ZX-80 had 1K RAM and 4K ROM. Developed by British entrepreneur Clive Sinclair, the ZX-80 meant that people could enter the computer revolution for under $200. Its small size and price attracted people who had never thought about owning a PC. The Commodore VIC-20, also introduced in 1980, had a color monitor and would eventually become the first PC to sell more than one million units.

Even with all of the success the early PC manufacturers had in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the advances in microprocessor speeds, and the creation of software, the PC was still not seen as a serious business tool. To the surprise of everyone in the computer industry; however, a change in the way the public viewed the computer was on its way.

In 1980, IBM had started a secret project in Boca Raton called "Acorn." Thirteen months later, in 1981, IBM introduced the IBM PC, a product that validated the PC as a legitimate business tool (Veit, p.289). For many people, even those who prided themselves on being able to operate the "Big Iron," if IBM was making PCs then the small desk-top units were worthy of respect.

When the IBM PC hit the market, it was a complete system. Secretly, IBM had provided software developers with prototypes of their PC so they could develop an array of programs that would be available when the machine hit the streets. IBM also developed printers, monitors, and expansion cards for the PC and made it an open system so other manufacturers could develop peripherals for it. The IBM PC used an Intel 8088 microprocessor, had 16K of RAM, was expandable to 256K, came with one 5.25-inch disk drive and room for a second, and was available with a choice of operating systems; CP/M-86 or IBM PC-DOS, which had been developed by Microsoft (Shirley, p. 29). The second major event of 1981 was the introduction of the first luggable computer, the Osborne 1. This self-contained, suitcase-sized PC, developed by Adam Osborne, was not only the first portable PC, but also the first to be sold with software. The Osborne I came with BASIC, CBASIC, WordStar for word processing, and the SuperCalc spreadsheet program. Over the next two years, the Osborne Computing Company would go from nothing to a company with $70 million in annual revenue.

Now that the PC had been validated, it began appearing on desk-tops in large and small companies to produce work schedules and payrolls, write letters and memos, and generate budgets. Software enabled people to do more in less time and business was promised the "paperless office" as an added benefit of the PC. Managers attended classes and began writing memos and letters, but many felt that the work they could now do themselves on a PC was demeaning; it was the work that secretaries and clerks had always done. For some, having a PC on the desk meant that they now had to do the work, not just delegate it, and for others it meant they no longer supervised a person, but a machine.

There was also a strong fear factor. The PCs were expensive and many people were afraid they would damage the units or erase everything in one keystroke. People who had always worked with things they could see and understand were suddenly putting their faith in chips and hard drives that they not only couldn't see or touch, but they also didn't understand. Suddenly it was permissible to make a mistake in spelling or grammar; it could be changed and rewritten until it was correct. The whole thought process didn't set well with some, for others it freed them from the drudgery of using white correction fluid to cover up mistakes on printed documents.

For consumers, the late 1980s were a time of frustration. No sooner had they learned to run their new PC and Macs than a new, better, larger, faster model was on the shelf. New versions of software, printers, and modems made it impossible to have the latest of anything.

In 1990, Intel's 386 and Motorola’s 68030 microprocessors were at the top, then in 1991 Intel brought out the i486SX 20 MHz chip and Motorola introduced the 68040. Less than a year later Intel introduced the 50MHz 486 chip and Tandy brought out its $400 CD-ROM drive for PCs. Then, just to make everyone wonder what was going on, in 1991 Apple and IBM agreed to share technology by integrating the Mac into IBM's systems and using the IBM Power PC chip.

In 1992, Apple brought out the Apple PowerBook, a laptop that made everyone wonder just how small a full-function computer could get. A year later everyone knew the answer when Apple introduced the Newton Personal Digital Assistant (PDA). The Newton was supposed to be able to recognize hand-written notes and Apple sold 50,000 of them in 10 weeks.

In 1993, Intel introduced the 60MHz Pentium chip, the next generation of chips. The Pentium; however, had a nasty mathematical bug and its acceptance was slowed. Apple discontinued the workhorse of its fleet, the Apple II, which, despite the mind boggling changes in the industry, had lasted 17 years (Pask, p. 124).

Not only were hardware and software obsolete, people were also getting caught up in their own obsolescence. For years, employers had included the operating systems and software names in their advertising for clerical and secretarial positions. As companies used more temporary workers and included both IBM clones and Macintosh's in their operations, proficiency with only one slammed the door on employment opportunities. Many people enrolled in classes to learn the latest software or update their computer skills. A good, well-rounded employee needed to know desktop publishing, two or more word processing programs, at least one spreadsheet program, and a graphics package. They had to be able to access the company local area network (LAN), send and receive E-mail using high-speed (28,800bps) modems, and solve problems with hardware and software to maximize their output. Microprocessor-driven telephones, cellular phones, and pagers added to the complexity of the job, and repetitive motion syndrome from using keyboards hour after hour created an army of people wearing wrist braces.

The creation of the personal computer was an important change in the way that the world operated. They revolutionized the workplace and provided entertainment at home. Also they allowed people to work outside of their workplace. Personal computers also provided a way for people around the world to get together and associate with each other. No matter how much opposition they may have been met with in the beginning; no one can imagine their lives without computers.


Shirley, Robin. "Altair and After: The Original PC Revolution," Computer Resurrection: The Bulletin of the Computer Conservation Society, 5(Spring 1993): 23-31.

Veit,Stan. Stan Veit's History of the Personal Computer: From Altair to IBM, A History of the PC Revolution. Asheville, NC: WordComm, 1993.

Pask, Dr. Gordon with Susan Curran. Micro Man: Computers and the Evolution of Consciousness. New York: Macmillan, 1982. 303.4834 P282 M626 1982

Thorne, Robert Fire in Silicon Valley. Pittsburg, PA: Brown House, 1995

Wallace, Ernest “Compact History of the PC” PC Universe: The Uninformed User’s Guide, 8(Fall 2002): 166-192