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History of the Computer Industry in America

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Only once in a lifetime will a new invention come about to touch

every aspect of our lives. Such a device that changes the way we work,

live, and play is a special one, indeed. A machine that has done all

this and more now exists in nearly every business in the U.S. and one

out of every two households (Hall, 156). This incredible invention is

the computer. The electronic computer has been around for over a

half-century, but its ancestors have been around for 2000 years.

However, only in the last 40 years has it changed the American society.

>From the first wooden abacus to the latest high-speed microprocessor,

the computer has changed nearly every aspect of peopleХs lives for the


The very earliest existence of the modern day computerХs

ancestor is the abacus. These date back to almost 2000 years ago. It

is simply a wooden rack holding parallel wires on which beads are

strung. When these beads are moved along the wire according to

"programming" rules that the user must memorize, all ordinary arithmetic

operations can be performed (Soma, 14). The next innovation in

computers took place in 1694 when Blaise Pascal invented the first

Тdigital calculating machineУ. It could only add numbers and they had

to be entered by turning dials. It was designed to help PascalХs father

who was a tax collector (Soma, 32).

In the early 1800Ð¥s, a mathematics professor named Charles

Babbage designed an automatic calculation machine. It was steam powered

and could store up to 1000 50-digit numbers. Built in to his machine

were operations that included everything a modern general-purpose

computer would need. It was programmed by--and stored data on--cards

with holes punched in them, appropriately called ТpunchcardsУ. His

inventions were failures for the most part because of the lack of

precision machining techniques used at the time and the lack of demand

for such a device (Soma, 46).

After Babbage, people began to lose interest in computers.

However, between 1850 and 1900 there were great advances in mathematics

and physics that began to rekindle the interest (Osborne, 45). Many of

these new advances involved complex calculations and formulas that were

very time consuming for human calculation. The first major use for a

computer in the U.S. was during the 1890 census. Two men, Herman

Hollerith and James Powers, developed a new punched-card system that

could automatically read information on cards without human intervention

(Gulliver, 82). Since the population of the U.S. was increasing so

fast, the computer was an essential tool in tabulating the totals.

These advantages were noted by commercial industries and soon

led to the development of improved punch-card business-machine systems

by International Business Machines (IBM), Remington-Rand, Burroughs, and

other corporations. By modern standards the punched-card machines were

slow, typically processing from 50 to 250 cards per minute, with each

card holding up to 80 digits. At the time, however, punched cards were

an enormous step forward; they provided a means of input, output, and

memory storage on a massive scale. For more than 50 years following

their first use, punched-card machines did the bulk of the world's

business computing and a good portion of the computing work in science

(Chposky, 73).

By the late 1930s punched-card machine techniques had become so

well established and reliable that Howard Hathaway Aiken, in

collaboration with engineers at IBM, undertook construction of a large

automatic digital computer based on standard IBM electromechanical

parts. Aiken's machine, called the Harvard Mark I, handled 23-digit

numbers and could perform all four arithmetic operations. Also, it had

special built-in programs to handle logarithms and trigonometric

functions. The Mark I was controlled from prepunched paper tape.

Output was by card punch and electric typewriter. It was slow,

requiring 3 to 5 seconds for a multiplication, but it was fully

automatic and could complete long computations without human

intervention (Chposky, 103).

The outbreak of World War II produced a desperate need for

computing capability, especially for the military. New weapons systems

were produced which needed trajectory tables and other essential data.

In 1942, John P. Eckert, John W. Mauchley, and their associates at the




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