By the 1930s, advances in electrical engineering led many scientists to
believe that a true electronic calculating machine was truly
possible. At the time, the desire to build a computing machine
came from either the scientific community (where research projects
in colleges and universities could be easily financed and
implemented), or from the government (where technology and military
superiority were mutually exclusive).
In either case, most
inventors relied on Charles Babbage's 100-year old designs to
develop their computing machines. The following five machines
are considered to be the most significant computing devices in the
evolution of the modern computer:
an engineering student in Berlin, Germany, was looking for ways
to reduce amount of mathematics involved for civil engineering.
Using war-time funding from the German government, Zuse created
the "Z3" (his third attempt) which used electromagnetic
telephone relays as logic elements, light bulbs to flash
answers, and could be programmed by punching holes into
discarded movie film. Operating at 3 to 5 seconds per
multiplication, the Z3 was the world's first programmable, fully
automatic computing machine. It weighed over 2000 pounds,
and contained 2,600 relays.
Zuse speculated that a computer built with vacuum tubes could
operate 1000 times faster than the Z3. He made a formal
development proposal to Adolph Hitler and the German High
Command, who rejected further work on the scheme until after the
war was won by Germany! As a result, Zuse's vacuum tube
computer was never built.
|The Atanasoff-Berry Computer
In 1937, Dr. John V. Atanasoff, a physics
professor at Iowa State University, was working on an electronic
calculating device to help his students solve complicated
differential equations. Five years later, with help from his assistant,
graduate student Clifford Berry, the ABC, or "Atanasoff-Berry
Computer" was completed. The ABC contained 280 vacuum
tubes, approximately 1 mile of wire, was about the size of a
large desk and weighed over 700 pounds.
Unlike the Z3, the ABC computer was fully electronic (it used
vacuum tubes as logic elements), and used binary digits to
represent data. However, the ABC was not programmable so
it's use was limited to very specific mathematical applications.
When Atanasoff left Iowa State University for World War II
assignments, work on the machine was discontinued.
"Colossus" was the code name given to an electronic computing
device used by British codebreakers to "break" encrypted German
messages during World War II. It was designed by engineer
Tommy Flowers and mathematician Max Newman.
Colossus machines were instrumental in the allied war effort,
and by the end of the war, 10 machines were in use (although
most Colossus hardware and blueprints were destroyed after the
war to maintain project secrecy).
The Colossus was fully electronic (using 2,400 vacuum tubes for
logic elements) and used binary digits to represent data.
In addition, the machine's circuits were connected using patch
cables and switches, which allowed the circuits to be re-wired -
thereby allowing a limited "re-programming" of the machine.
|The Harvard Mark 1
In 1937 - basically the same time that John Atanasoff had begun
work on the ABC, Harvard mathematics professor Howard Aiken,
also proposed an electronic calculating machine to help solve
complex mathematical problems. For funding, Aiken contacted IBM, who
had become a powerful force in the business machines market.
Thomas Watson Sr. gave Aiken $1 million to begin work on the
machine. Seven years later, the machine was
completed at IBM, then moved to Harvard, where it was used by
the U.S. Navy for ballistics and gunnery calculations.
The Mark I was an engineering marvel, 55 feet long and 8
feet high. It utilized many of the electromechanical parts that were already used extensively
in IBM tabulating machines - electric relays, typewriters, card
feeders, card punches, and 78 adding machines and desk
calculators, all connected with over 800 km of wire.
Programming was accomplished by instructions punched
onto a roll of paper tape.
Although it was programmable, the Mark 1 was not fully
electronic or binary in its design. However, the Mark I
would go on to produce a great many important mathematical
tables that would be widely utilized in science and engineering.
|The ENIAC (Electronic Numerical
Integrator and Calculator)
In 1943, American military
officials approached Dr. John Mauchly at the
University of Pennsylvania's Moore School of Engineering, and
asked him to build a machine that would rapidly calculate
trajectories for artillery and missiles. Relying on the previous
research done by Dr. John V. Atanasoff (developer of the ABC),
Mauchly and a graduate student, J. Presper Eckert,
began work on their Electronic Numerical Integrator And
Calculator, or ENIAC.
Although too late to contribute to the
war effort, Mauchly and Eckert unveiled the completed ENIAC on
February 15, 1946. It was the largest electronic machine
ever built, containing 18,000 vacuum tubes and semiconductor
diodes, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors, 6,000 switches, and
1,500 relays. It's dimensions were approximately 80 x 20 x
10 feet - about the size of an 18-wheel tractor trailer - and it
weighed 30 tons. It's power consumption (130,000 watts)
was so great that people claimed that half of the lights in
Philadelphia dimmed every time that ENIAC was turned on!
was 1000 times faster than any other machine currently in
existence (a leap in technology that has never been duplicated
since). ENIAC's first task was a nuclear physics problem
that would have required twenty people five years to complete.
The answer was provided by ENIAC in 2 hours. For the next
six years, the ENIAC was the major instrument for the
computation of all ballistic tables for the U.S. Army and Air
Force. It was also used for weather prediction,
atomic-energy calculations, cosmic-ray studies, thermal
ignition, random-number studies, wind-tunnel design, and other
John Mauchly & J. Presper Eckert
... so Who Invented the Computer?
years, the efforts early computing pioneers were unknown because of
the secrecy of their work during the second world war. After
18 years of bickering with Harvard University over the ownership of
the ENIAC, John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert were finally awarded patent
#3120606 for the ENIAC in 1964, and were credited with the invention of
the computer. However, over the next decade, the contributions
made by Konrad Zuse, Tommy Flowers, and others began to surface.
In a 1973 landmark case, a US federal court invalidated the ENIAC patent,
placing the invention of the electronic digital computer in the
public domain. (The case received little publicity due to the
ongoing Watergate scandal)
The invention of the computer remains a
subject of controversy to this day. Flowers and Newman are still considered by many to be the true
inventors of the computer, as the Colossus was the first computing
machine that was programmable, binary and fully electronic.
However, other "experts" have argued the case for Zuse (Z3) and
Atanasoff (ABC). Yet another school of thought includes
visionaries such as Charles Babbage, Alan Turing and John Von
Neumann, whose ideas and theories shaped the development of the