10 Key Facts on the Invention of the First Computer
Today, virtually every aspect of human life is profoundly impacted by computers. Business, entertainment, and personal relationships are all facilitated through digital technology. But why was the first computer developed and what were its capabilities? Well, that depends on what factor you consider!
For example, years separate the first computer ever designed and the first one to operate entirely on electricity. Likewise, it took decades of development before large mainframe computers gave way to the first relatively portable device thought of as a “personal computer.”
As a result, there were many important firsts that set the tenor of development and gave rise to today’s computers.
In fact, although modern computers have been around for only a few decades, the precursors to digital technology have been around for centuries. Let’s take a look at ten of the most important facts about the first computers, the great-grandfathers of today’s computer hardware.
1: The Basic Technology for the First Computer Appeared in 1801
Long before digital technology was first understood, textiles were the basis for many advanced economies. In the United States, United Kingdom, and France, raising the efficiency of textile production was key to economic power. In 1801, the Jacquard loom first appeared: It used punch cards to automatically weave patterns. Similar punch cards were used in the first computer.
2: The U.S. Government was an Early Adopter
Long before the first computer’s development, the U.S. federal government made it clear there was a serious need for one. In the 1800s, it took five to seven years for the government to tabulate census results. By the time the data was compiled and sorted, it was almost useless for any practical purpose. It wasn’t until 1890 that a suitable tabulator was invented, but it wasn’t a true computer.
3: The First Computer Ever Designed was a Flop – or More Precisely, Vaporware
When thinking about the first computer, it’s important to draw a distinction: Are you talking about the first prototype, the first successful model, or the first one commercially available for home users? The first design identifiable as a computer was the difference engine funded by the English government and invented by Charles Babbage in 1822 – but it was never built.
4: The First “True” Computer was Invented 1936
When did the first programmable compute emerge? We can thank the German engineer Konrad Zuse, who built the first modern computer and developed an algorithmic programming language for it. The original Z1 was constructed in Zuse’s parents’ basement between 1936 and 1938. The original was destroyed in the bombing of Berlin, but Zuse designed many more after the war.
5: The First Digital Computer Arrived in 1937
The “ABC” – short for Atanasoff-Berry Computer – was developed at Iowa State College (now Iowa State University.) It was much more reliable than the Z1 and used vacuum tubes for rapid digital computation. Its concepts gave rise to a number of other computer designs, including the ENIAC, which was constructed in 1946 and occupied over 1,8000 square feet.
6: Most Early Computers Were Used in War
Although not every early computer scientist was involved in the war effort, World War II was the catalyst for significantly accelerating the development of computers. For example, the first electric programmable computer – the Colossus – was used as a code-breaking machine by the United Kingdom. It was intended to decipher German communications on the battlefield.
7: The First Computer Company Didn’t Exist Until 1949
Although IBM was founded after developing a punch card system that accelerated the U.S. census, it was not dedicated to computer development or commercialization at that time. The first focused computer company was EMCC – Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation – which was founded in 1949 by the developers of the ENIAC. It was originally called Electronic Controls Company.
8: The First Commercial Computer Emerged in 1942
Konrad Zuse, who blazed a trail with the development of the Z1, was also the first to bring the computer to a commercial audience. By 1942, his designs had progressed substantially, and he had working models of the Z4. The first commercial sale of the Z4 was to a mathematician working for the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.
9: The First Personal Computer Took Until 1975
RAM, transistors, and microprocessors were all necessary before the true “personal computer” could be realized. Computer scientist Ed Roberts coined the term in reference to his Altair 8800. The Altair sold as a kit for $439 or could be professionally assembled for a total cost of $621. Switches at the device’s front accepted user input; output came in the form of flashing lights.
10: The First Portable Computer Weighed 55 Pounds
Complete with a 5” CRT, 64 kilobytes of RAM, and a lightning fast 1.9MHz processor, the IBM 5100 released in 1975 was the first portable computer. The first “true laptop” made its debut in 1981 and weighed 24.5 pounds. At $1,795, its specs were broadly similar to the IBM 5100, but it included two floppy disk drives and a built-in modem.
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