America and the Computer Industry
Only once in a lifetime will a new invention come about to
touch every aspect of our lives. Such a device that changes
the way we work, live, and play is a special one, indeed. A
machine that has done all this and more now exists in
nearly every business in the U.S. and one out of every two
households (Hall, 156). This incredible invention is the
computer. The electronic computer has been around for over
a half-century, but its ancestors have been around for 2000
years. However, only in the last 40 years has it changed
the American society. >From the first wooden abacus to the
latest high-speed microprocessor, the computer has changed
nearly every aspect of people’s lives for the better.
The very earliest existence of the modern day computer’s
ancestor is the abacus. These date back to almost 2000
years ago. It is simply a wooden rack holding parallel
wires on which beads are strung. When these beads are moved
along the wire according to "programming" rules that the
user must memorize, all ordinary arithmetic operations can
be performed (Soma, 14). The next innovation in computers
took place in 1694 when Blaise Pascal invented the first
“digital calculating machine”. It could only add numbers
and they had to be entered by turning dials. It was
designed to help Pascal’s father who was a tax collector
In the early 1800’s, a mathematics professor named Charles
Babbage designed an automatic calculation machine. It was
steam powered and could store up to 1000 50-digit numbers.
Built in to his machine were operations that included
everything a modern general-purpose computer would need. It
was programmed by-and stored data on-cards with holes
punched in them, appropriately called “punchcards”. His
inventions were failures for the most part because of the
lack of precision machining techniques used at the time and
the lack of demand for such a device (Soma, 46).
After Babbage, people began to lose interest in computers.
However, between 1850 and 1900 there were great advances in
mathematics and physics that began to rekindle the interest
(Osborne, 45). Many of these new advances involved complex
calculations and formulas that were very time consuming for
human calculation. The first major use for a computer in
the U.S. was during the 1890 census. Two men, Herman
Hollerith and James Powers, developed a new punched-card
system that could automatically read information on cards
without human intervention (Gulliver, 82). Since the
population of the U.S. was increasing so fast, the computer
was an essential tool in tabulating the totals.
These advantages were noted by commercial industries and
soon led to the development of improved punch-card
business-machine systems by International Business Machines
(IBM), Remington-Rand, Burroughs, and other corporations.
By modern standards the punched-card machines were slow,
typically processing from 50 to 250 cards per minute, with
each card holding up to 80 digits. At the time, however,
punched cards were an enormous step forward; they provided
a means of input, output, and memory storage on a massive
scale. For more than 50 years following their first use,
punched-card machines did the bulk of the world's business
computing and a good portion of the computing work in
science (Chposky, 73).
By the late 1930s punched-card machine techniques had
become so well established and reliable that Howard
Hathaway Aiken, in collaboration with engineers at IBM,
undertook construction of a large automatic digital
computer based on standard IBM electromechanical parts.
Aiken's machine, called the Harvard Mark I, handled
23-digit numbers and could perform all four arithmetic
operations. Also, it had special built-in programs to
handle logarithms and trigonometric functions. The Mark I
was controlled from prepunched paper tape. Output was by
card punch and electric typewriter. It was slow, requiring
3 to 5 seconds for a multiplication, but it was fully
automatic and could complete long computations without
human intervention (Chposky, 103).
The outbreak of World War II produced a desperate need for
computing capability, especially for the military. New
weapons systems were produced which needed trajectory
tables and other essential data. In 1942, John P. Eckert,
John W. Mauchley, and their associates at the University of
Pennsylvania decided to build a high-speed electronic
computer to do the job. This machine became known as ENIAC,
for "Electrical Numerical Integrator And Calculator". It
could multiply two numbers at the rate of 300 products per
second, by finding the value of each product from a
multiplication table stored in its memory. ENIAC was thus
about 1,000 times faster than the previous generation of
computers (Dolotta, 47).
ENIAC used 18,000 standard vacuum tubes, occupied 1800
square feet of floor space, and used about 180,000 watts of
electricity. It used punched-card input and output. The
ENIAC was very difficult to program because one had to
essentially re-wire it to perform whatever task he wanted
the computer to do. It was, however, efficient in handling
the particular programs for which it had been designed.
ENIAC is generally accepted as the first successful
high-speed electronic digital computer and was used in many
applications from 1946 to 1955 (Dolotta, 50).
Mathematician John von Neumann was very interested in the
ENIAC. In 1945 he undertook a theoretical study of
computation that demonstrated that a computer could have a
very simple and yet be able to execute any kind of
computation effectively by means of proper programmed
control without the need for any changes in hardware. Von
Neumann came up with incredible ideas for methods of
building and organizing practical, fast computers. These
ideas, which came to be referred to as the stored-program
technique, became fundamental for future generations of
high-speed digital computers and were universally adopted
The first wave of modern programmed electronic computers to
take advantage of these improvements appeared in 1947. This
group included computers using random access memory (RAM),
which is a memory designed to give almost constant access
to any particular piece of information (Hall, 75). These
machines had punched-card or punched-tape input and output
devices and RAMs of 1000-word capacity. Physically, they
were much more compact than ENIAC: some were about the size
of a grand piano and required 2500 small electron tubes.
This was quite an improvement over the earlier machines.
The first-generation stored-program computers required
considerable maintenance, usually attained 70% to 80%
reliable operation, and were used for 8 to 12 years.
Typically, they were programmed directly in machine
language, although by the mid-1950s progress had been made
in several aspects of advanced programming. This group of
machines included EDVAC and UNIVAC, the first commercially
available computers (Hazewindus, 102).
The UNIVAC was developed by John W. Mauchley and John
Eckert, Jr. in the 1950’s. Together they had formed the
Mauchley-Eckert Computer Corporation, America’s first
computer company in the 1940’s. During the development of
the UNIVAC, they began to run short on funds and sold their
company to the larger Remington-Rand Corporation.
Eventually they built a working UNIVAC computer. It was
delivered to the U.S. Census Bureau in 1951 where it was
used to help tabulate the U.S. population (Hazewindus, 124).
Early in the 1950s two important engineering discoveries
changed the electronic computer field. The first computers
were made with vacuum tubes, but by the late 1950’s
computers were being made out of transistors, which were
smaller, less expensive, more reliable, and more efficient
(Shallis, 40). In 1959, Robert Noyce, a physicist at the
Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation, invented the
integrated circuit, a tiny chip of silicon that contained
an entire electronic circuit. Gone was the bulky,
unreliable, but fast machine; now computers began to become
more compact, more reliable and have more capacity
These new technical discoveries rapidly found their way
into new models of digital computers. Memory storage
capacities increased 800% in commercially available
machines by the early 1960s and speeds increased by an
equally large margin. These machines were very expensive to
purchase or to rent and were especially expensive to
operate because of the cost of hiring programmers to
perform the complex operations the computers ran. Such
computers were typically found in large computer
centers-operated by industry, government, and private
laboratories-staffed with many programmers and support
personnel (Rogers, 77). By 1956, 76 of IBM’s large computer
mainframes were in use, compared with only 46 UNIVAC’s
In the 1960s efforts to design and develop the fastest
possible computers with the greatest capacity reached a
turning point with the completion of the LARC machine for
Livermore Radiation Laboratories by the Sperry-Rand
Corporation, and the Stretch computer by IBM. The LARC had
a core memory of 98,000 words and multiplied in 10
microseconds. Stretch was provided with several ranks of
memory having slower access for the ranks of greater
capacity, the fastest access time being less than 1
microseconds and the total capacity in the vicinity of 100
million words (Chposky, 147).
During this time the major computer manufacturers began to
offer a range of computer capabilities, as well as various
computer-related equipment. These included input means such
as consoles and card feeders; output means such as page
printers, cathode-ray-tube displays, and graphing devices;
and optional magnetic-tape and magnetic-disk file storage.
These found wide use in business for such applications as
accounting, payroll, inventory control, ordering supplies,
and billing. Central processing units (CPUs) for such
purposes did not need to be very fast arithmetically and
were primarily used to access large amounts of records on
file. The greatest number of computer systems were
delivered for the larger applications, such as in hospitals
for keeping track of patient records, medications, and
treatments given. They were also used in automated library
systems and in database systems such as the Chemical
Abstracts system, where computer records now on file cover
nearly all known chemical compounds (Rogers, 98).
The trend during the 1970s was, to some extent, away from
extremely powerful, centralized computational centers and
toward a broader range of applications for less-costly
computer systems. Most continuous-process manufacturing,
such as petroleum refining and electrical-power
distribution systems, began using computers of relatively
modest capability for controlling and regulating their
activities. In the 1960s the programming of applications
problems was an obstacle to the self-sufficiency of
moderate-sized on-site computer installations, but great
advances in applications programming languages removed
these obstacles. Applications languages became available
for controlling a great range of manufacturing processes,
for computer operation of machine tools, and for many other
tasks (Osborne, 146). In 1971 Marcian E. Hoff, Jr., an
engineer at the Intel Corporation, invented the
microprocessor and another stage in the deveopment of the
computer began (Shallis, 121).
A new revolution in computer hardware was now well under
way, involving miniaturization of computer-logic circuitry
and of component manufacture by what are called large-scale
integration techniques. In the 1950s it was realized that
"scaling down" the size of electronic digital computer
circuits and parts would increase speed and efficiency and
improve performance. However, at that time the
manufacturing methods were not good enough to accomplish
such a task. About 1960 photoprinting of conductive circuit
boards to eliminate wiring became highly developed. Then it
became possible to build resistors and capacitors into the
circuitry by photographic means (Rogers, 142). In the 1970s
entire assemblies, such as adders, shifting registers, and
counters, became available on tiny chips of silicon. In the
1980s very large scale integration (VLSI), in which
hundreds of thousands of transistors are placed on a single
chip, became increasingly common. Many companies, some new
to the computer field, introduced in the 1970s programmable
minicomputers supplied with software packages. The
size-reduction trend continued with the introduction of
personal computers, which are programmable machines small
enough and inexpensive enough to be purchased and used by
individuals (Rogers, 153).
One of the first of such machines was introduced in January
1975. Popular Electronics magazine provided plans that
would allow any electronics wizard to build his own small,
programmable computer for about $380 (Rose, 32). The
computer was called the “Altair 8800”. Its programming
involved pushing buttons and flipping switches on the front
of the box. It didn’t include a monitor or keyboard, and
its applications were very limited (Jacobs, 53). Even
though, many orders came in for it and several famous
owners of computer and software manufacturing companies got
their start in computing through the Altair. For example,
Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, founders of Apple Computer,
built a much cheaper, yet more productive version of the
Altair and turned their hobby into a business (Fluegelman,
After the introduction of the Altair 8800, the personal
computer industry became a fierce battleground of
competition. IBM had been the computer industry standard
for well over a half-century. They held their position as
the standard when they introduced their first personal
computer, the IBM Model 60 in 1975 (Chposky, 156). However,
the newly formed Apple Computer company was releasing its
own personal computer, the Apple II (The Apple I was the
first computer designed by Jobs and Wozniak in Wozniak’s
garage, which was not produced on a wide scale). Software
was needed to run the computers as well. Microsoft
developed a Disk Operating System (MS-DOS) for the IBM
computer while Apple developed its own software system
(Rose, 37). Because Microsoft had now set the software
standard for IBMs, every software manufacturer had to make
their software compatible with Microsoft’s. This would lead
to huge profits for Microsoft (Cringley, 163).
The main goal of the computer manufacturers was to make the
computer as affordable as possible while increasing speed,
reliability, and capacity. Nearly every computer
manufacturer accomplished this and computers popped up
everywhere. Computers were in businesses keeping track of
inventories. Computers were in colleges aiding students in
research. Computers were in laboratories making complex
calculations at high speeds for scientists and physicists.
The computer had made its mark everywhere in society and
built up a huge industry (Cringley, 174).
The future is promising for the computer industry and its
technology. The speed of processors is expected to double
every year and a half in the coming years. As manufacturing
techniques are further perfected the prices of computer
systems are expected to steadily fall. However, since the
microprocessor technology will be increasing, it’s higher
costs will offset the drop in price of older processors. In
other words, the price of a new computer will stay about
the same from year to year, but technology will steadily
increase (Zachary, 42)
Since the end of World War II, the computer industry has
grown from a standing start into one of the biggest and
most profitable industries in the United States. It now
comprises thousands of companies, making everything from
multi-million dollar high-speed supercomputers to printout
paper and floppy disks. It employs millions of people and
generates tens of billions of dollars in sales each year
(Malone, 192). Surely, the computer has impacted every
aspect of people’s lives. It has affected the way people
work and play. It has made everyone’s life easier by doing
difficult work for people. The computer truly is one of the
most incredible inventions in history.
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