PC CONSULTANTS: A very brief history of early computing

Colossus at work

Many consider the abacus, invented in 2700BC, as the first computer. With the Ancient Greek Antikythera mechanism, which could predict astronomical positions and eclipses decades in advance, and dating back to 205BC, as the oldest known example of an analogue computer.

However, the first computer that resembled the machines we see today was invented by Charles Babbage between 1833 and 1871, but not built until 1991! It was a mechanical device that could perform only simple calculations. But it was Alan Turing, born in 1912, who is considered as the ‘founder of computing science’, whose theories of computing developed through the 1930s were groundbreaking.

The Colossus, first demonstrated in 1943 and developed by Tommy Flowers, is recognised as the first electric programmable computer. Initially created to help British code breakers read encrypted German messages it occupied 1,800 square feet (167 square meters) and weighed almost 50 tons.

In 1945 ENIAC, developed in the later stages of WWII for the US Government by The University of Pennsylvania, became the first programmable general-purpose electronic digital computer. But it was the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) that first flew in 1966, and performed flawlessly on 15 manned flights, including nine flights to the moon and six successful lunar landings, that changed the face of computing, becoming the first computer based on silicon integrated circuits. As the historian, David Mindell, once joked, the AGC began “the transition between people bragging about how big their computers were (to) bragging about how small their computers are.” The AGC had just 32 KB of RAM, a 72 KB hard drive (ROM) and a processor that ran at 43 kHz.

Today’s mobile phones have more computer power than all of NASA did in 1969.

The success of the AGC drove the first generation of home computers with the Micral N, launched in 1973, becoming the world’s first personal computer, and in 1975 IBM launched the 5100, the first portable computer – weighing 55-pounds (25 kilos) with a tiny five-inch display.

Apple joined the race, launching the Apple I in 1976 and Apple II in 1977. In 1981 this culminated in IBM’s 5150 Personal Computer, which became a staple in businesses globally and the de facto format for computers since that time.

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