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History of Computer

1. Introduction: The computer is an electronic device that can perform a variety of operations according to a set of instructions called program. According to McGraw Hill Encyclopaedia (1997), it is “a device that receives, processes and presents information” (p. 270). According to Encyclopaedia Britannica (1991), a computer is a device that solves problems by applying prescribed operation on data entered into it (p. 638). A computer can also be defined as a set of interacting elements, responding to input so as to produce desire output. The industrial machine eliminates muscular effort from production; just like that the computing machine eliminates clerical and computational effort from administration, research, etc.

2. History of a Computer: The word “computer” is derived from the word “compute”, which means to calculate. The first use of the word “computer” was recorded in 1613 in a book called The Yong Mans Gleanings by English writer Richard Braithwait, referring to a person who carried out calculations, or computations, and the word continued to be used in that sense until the middle of the 19th century. From the end of the 19th century onwards though, the word began to take on its more familiar meaning, describing a machine that carries out computations.

It is difficult to identify any one device as the earliest computer, partly because the term “computer” has been subject to varying interpretations over time. It was the fusion of automatic calculation with programmability that produced the first recognizable computers.

3. Beginning of Computer: Examples of early mechanical calculating devices included the abacus, the slide rule and arguably the astrolabe and the Antikythera mechanism (which dates from about 150-100 BC). The end of the middle ages saw a re-invigoration of European mathematics and engineering. Wilhelm Schickard's 1623 device was the first of a number of mechanical calculators constructed by European engineers. However, none of those devices fit the modern definition of a computer because they could not be programmed.

a) Abacus: The concepts of number and counting are believed to have been developed first by the herdsmen of ancient times, who sought to avoid animal losses. It can be traced back to 3000 BC. The herdsmen (or the Stone Age men) used small round stones (pebbles) for counting cattle. After counting with pebbles, the successor was a tool known as ABACUS, which is treated as the first mechanical computing device. The word “Abacus” is derived from the Greek word ‘abakos’ which means a board or calculating tables. Beads are strung on wires or strings held in a frame and they are slid along the wires counting, adding, etc. It was invented by the Chinese in 3000 BC, which was later improved by the Egyptians and the Greeks.

b) Mechanical Theater: Hero of Alexandria (c. 10–c. 70 AD) built a mechanical theater which performed a play lasting 10 minutes and was operated by a complex system of ropes and drums that might be considered to be a means of deciding which parts of the mechanism performed which actions and when.

c) Joseph Marie Jacquard: In 1801, Joseph Marie Jacquard made an improvement to the textile loom that used a series of punched paper cards as a template to allow his loom to weave intricate patterns automatically. The resulting “Jacquard loom” was an important step in the development of computers because the use of punched cards to define woven patterns can be viewed as an early form of programmability.

d) Napier’s Bones: John Napier was the inventor of logarithms. He used his data tables and with the help of a mechanical device could do the necessary computing.

e) Pascal’s Machine Arithmetique: In 1642 Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician invented a mechanical adding machine, a prototype of the digital calculating machine. This device was able to add and subtract directly, whereas multiplication and division were performed through repeated addition and subtraction respectively.

f) Leibnitz’s Stepped Reckoner: Gottfried Withelm Von Leibnitz, a German mathematician invented a more advanced calculating machine in 1671, which could not only add but also multiply, divide and extract square root. As the machine could make a series of repeated additions, it was called the Stepped Reckoner. The merit of Leibnitz’s contribution is that he showed the advantage of binary system over decimal system in the operation of mechanical computer.

g) Punched Card: A French weaver’s son named Joseph Marie-Jacquard made the next significant contribution in 1804. After observing how his father could make different weaving patterns on the loom, he thought of storing these patterns for future use. So, he developed a plate with multiple holes to control the weaving patters, not knowing that only his idea of storing the weaving patterns would be used to store data and would be called the Punched Card. A Punched card is a thin rectangular card divided into 80 columns and 12 rows in which the various characters could be represented by punching holes in different rows and columns. On one card it is possible to punch 80 characters – one character per column, thus it is possible to store 80 characters of data.

h) Babbage’s Difference and Analytical Engines: Charles Babbage, a professor of Mathematics, designed a computing machine in 1822 for the purpose of producing ballistic tables called the “Difference Engine”. Then he conceived the idea of a new computing machine in 1833 and designed the machine in 1835 called Analytical Engine, which is the forerunner of the modern computer. It could be called as the first digital computer having the memory and the calculating units as well as sequential control with provision for automatic printout. Thus, Charles Babbage is widely regarded as the father of the computer. Due to limited finances, and an inability to resist thinking with the design, Babbage never actually built his Analytical Engine. The Analytical Engine should not be confused with Babbage's Difference Engine which was a non-programmable mechanical calculator.

i) Lady Ada Lovelace: Lady Ada Lovelace, an amateur mathematician, and a friend of Babbage produced supporting material for the “Analytical Engine” in the form of programs, and explanatory documentation. As such, she is considered the first lady computer programmer. ADA is one of the programming languages named after her.

j) Boole’s Symbolic Logic: George Boole, the famous logician, discussed symbolic logic in 1859 in his work ‘Treatise of differential equation’. The development of symbolic logic and the application of binary logic operation AND, OR, NOT are his main contribution to modern computer technology.

k) Hollerith’s Punched Card Machinery: Dr. Herman Hollerith, an American statistician invented the punched card machinery in 1886. Large-scale automated data processing of punched cards was performed for the U.S. Census in 1890 by tabulating machines designed by Herman Hollerith and manufactured by the Computing Tabulating Recording Corporation, which later became International Business Machine (IBM) Corporation. The punched card invented by Hollerith is still used as the basic input medium to computers.

l) Aiken and MARK I: This computer is also known as automatic sequence controlled calculator, which was designed by Howard A. Aiken of Harvard University. It is also known as Harvard MARK I. It is the first fully electro-mechanical computer.

m) Stibitz’s Machine, MARK II and SSEC: George R. Stibitz developed a large relay computer at Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1946. Aiken built the MARK II, the large relay computer in 1947. Another machine was also constructed by the people of IBM Corporation known as the Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator (SSEC).

n) The Atanasoff-Berry Computer: This electronic machine was also known as ABC (Atanasoff-Berry Computer) as it was named after its founder Dr. John Atanasoff and his assistant Clifford Berry. The non-programmable Atanasoff–Berry Computer (1941) used vacuum tube based computation, binary numbers, and regenerative capacitor memory.

o) Colossus Computers: The secret British Colossus computers (1943) had limited programmability but demonstrated that a device using thousands of tubes could be reasonably reliable and electronically reprogrammable. It was used for breaking German wartime codes.

p) Z Machines: In 1941, Konrad Zuse’s electromechanical “Z machines” (Z3) was the first working machine featuring binary arithmetic, including floating point arithmetic and a measure of programmability. In 1998, the Z3 was proved to be the world’s first operational computer.

q) Bush and Memex: Memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records and communications, which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. Dr. Vannevar Bush visualized the library of the future with mechanized services from housekeeping to operation.

4. Early Electronic Computer: The early electronic computer can be categorized into the following-
a) Electronic Numerical Integrator And Calculator (ENIAC): This computer was built by a team at the University of Pennsylvania, designed by a team of members from the USA headed by Professor J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly. The U.S. Army’s Ballistics Research Laboratory ENIAC (1946), which used decimal arithmetic, is sometimes called the first general purpose electronic computer (since Konrad Zuse’s Z3 of 1941 used electromagnets instead of electronics). Initially, however, ENIAC had an inflexible architecture which essentially required rewiring to change its programming.

Several developers of ENIAC, recognizing its flaws, came up with a far more flexible and elegant design, which came to be known as the stored program architecture or Von Neumann architecture. This design was first formally described by John Von Neumann in the paper “First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC”, published in 1945. A number of projects to develop computers based on the stored program architecture commenced around this time, the first of these being completed in Great Britain. The first to be demonstrated working was the Manchester Small-Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM) or “Baby”.

b) Binary Automated Computer (BINAC): Mauchly and Eckert established their own company and design the BINAC in 1950, which was the first machine to use self checking devices.

c) Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer (EDVAC): Dr. John Von Neumann and the ENIAC group designed this computer. The device could store both the instruction and the data in the binary form, instead of human readable words or decimal numbers.

d) Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator (EDSAC): It was developed by the Britishers, headed by Professor Maurice V. Wilkes at the Cambridge University Mathematical Laboratory. It was much faster than EDVAC. EDSAC was one of the first computers to implement the stored program (Von Neumann) architecture.
The EDSAC which completed a year after SSEM, was perhaps the first practical implementation of the stored program design. Shortly thereafter, the machine originally described by von Neumann’s paper EDVAC was completed but did not see full-time use for an additional two years.

e) Standard Eastern Automatic Computer (SEAC): The US National Bureau of Standards constructed this computer following the design of EDVAC and was completed in 1950. It was the first stored-program American Computer.

f) Manchester Mark I (1948): This machine was designed by a group of scientists headed by Professor M. N. A. Newman.

g) Universal Automatic Computer (UNIVAC I): Mauchly and Eckert designed and built UNIVAC I. It was the first computer to handle both numerical and alphabetical information.
h) MARK III and IV: Aiken built MARK III with magnetic drum storage at Harvard in 1950 and MARK IV, an improved version of MARK III, in 1952.

5. Modern Electronic Computer: Modern electronic computers have a faster speed. A major breakthrough in the computer technology was made by introducing transistor in place of vacuum tubes during the early sixties. With the development of transistor it was possible to design printed circuit, integrated circuit and other miniaturization techniques in the structure of computer.

The first devices that resemble modern computers date to the mid-20th century (around 1940 - 1945), although the computer concept and various machines similar to computers existed earlier. Early electronic computers were the size of a large room, consuming as much power as several hundred modern personal computers. Modern computers are based on tiny integrated circuits and are millions to billions of times more capable while occupying a fraction of the space. Today, simple computers may be made small enough to fit into a wristwatch and be powered from a watch battery.

In 1946, ENIAC consumed an estimated 174 kW. By comparison, a typical personal computer may use around 400 W; over four hundred times less. Early computers such as Colossus and ENIAC were able to process between 5 and 100 operations per second. A modern “commodity” microprocessor can process billions of operations per second, and many of these operations are more complicated and useful than early computer operations.

6. Conclusion: The history of computer began long before the modern computer that emerged in the 20th century, and was hinted at in the centuries prior. Computers truly came into their own as great inventions in the last two decades of the 20th century. But their history stretches back more than 2500 years to the abacus: a simple calculator made from beads and wires, which is still used in some parts of the world today. The difference between an ancient abacus and a modern computer seems vast, but the principle—making repeated calculations more quickly than the human brain—is exactly the same.

How to Cite this Article?
APA Citation, 7th Ed.:  Barman, B. (2020). A comprehensive book on Library and Information Science. New Publications.
Chicago 16th Ed.:  Barman, Badan. A Comprehensive Book on Library and Information Science. Guwahati: New Publications, 2020.
MLA Citation 8th Ed:  Barman, Badan. A Comprehensive Book on Library and Information Science. New Publications, 2020.

Badan BarmanDr. Badan Barman at present working as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Library and Information Science, Gauhati University, Guwahati-781014, Assam, India. He is the creator of the LIS Links ( - India’s most popular social networking website for Library and Information Science professionals. He also created the Open Access Journals Search Engine (OAJSE) (, UGC NET Guide (, Assam Archive ( and LIS Study ( website.

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