This book is a concise history that covers the most important people, companies and inventions that played a part in the evolution of the first computers that were developed during World War II until today. It is a story that will appeal to non-technical people as well as to people in the computer field.
The very first electronic computers were invented at the end of World War II. They were very large machines that could only be used in special air conditioned rooms. Today, almost everybody carries a computer in their pocket, in their mobile phone. How did all this come about in only 70 years?
This book is for people who would like to know the answer to this question. It tells this exciting story, with a lot of pictures. This book is not a complete history, rather it is a concise history that covers the most important people, companies and inventions that led to where we are today.
The first chapter covers the evolution of computer hardware - the physical machine. The second chapter focuses on the software - the programs that provide the instructions that tell the hardware what to do. The third chapter covers the most important data networks that were developed so that computers could communicate with each other, ending with the Internet which only became the dominant computer network after 1995. The last chapter on Smartphones traces its history from the discovery of radio waves in the late 19th century to the Apple iPhone.
This book does not require a lot of technical knowledge about computers. People who are interested in learning more about how computers actually work can read the companion book “Understanding Computers, Smartphones and the Internet”, by Ernie Dainow.
In 1936, Alan Turing wrote a paper on an important theoretical question in mathematics, showing that it was not possible to decide if a statement was true or not given a set of axioms and rules of logic. This was the “decision problem”, posed by David Hilbert, one of the great mathematicians of the time.
To establish his proof, Turing described a theoretical machine that could manipulate symbols according to a set of instructions. This machine could move a tape forward or backward, read what was on the tape and then write 0 or 1 on the tape depending on what it had read. Turing proved that a series of instructions could be given to such a machine that would compute the solution to any problem, except those that did not have a solution. This theoretical machine became known as a “Turing machine”.
There were many mechanical calculators (such as adding machines) in use by the end of the 19th century and the idea that it was possible to build a general purpose calculator that would work for any calculation and was as simple as a Turing machine was revolutionary.
Other important ideas were contained in Claude Shannon’s master’s thesis that was published in 1938. He showed that electrical switches could be used to implement logic and arithmetic. The paper included a circuit design that could add numbers and a circuit design that could be used to make a decision based on comparing two values. This became the foundation of digital circuit design. Shannon went on to a distinguished career at Bell Labs and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and published a paper “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” in 1948 that became the basis of information theory.
Turing’s interest in computation led to him being recruited by the British Secret Service during World War II. He worked on a team tasked with deciphering the Enigma code used by the Germans to encrypt their radio transmissions. This dramatic story has been recounted numerous times such as in the play “Breaking the Code” shown by the BBC in 1996 and the film “The Imitation Game” in 2015.
Turing was instrumental in designing and building a machine that sped up the computations that allowed them to break Enigma. However, this machine was not really a computer but more of a specialized calculator that simulated an Enigma coding machine.
There was another Secret Service team in Britain working on breaking encryption of other German devices. They did design and build a machine that could properly be called a computer in 1944. This machine, the Colossus, was one of the first computers ever built. Other very early computers were the ENIAC built at the University of Pennsylvania and several machines built by Konrad Zuse in Germany.
In 1945 John von Neumann published a detailed design for a stored program computer. Von Neumann was a mathematician who worked out many important calculations for the Manhattan project, the U.S. development of the atomic bomb. He was greatly influenced by the Turing machine concept but he needed a detailed and practical blueprint to develop a working computer that could be built with the technology available at the time. The fundamental design he laid out became the model for all computers. Computers today are generally called “von Neumann” machines. There have been ideas for other types of machines, such as optical computers and quantum computers and research is being done in these areas, but it will be many years before von Neumann machines are supplanted.