A brief history of computing

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The progression of the ease of use of computers: Almost impossible to use except by very patient geniuses s ; Programmable by highly trained people only s and s ; Useable by just about anyone s and on. Mauchly and J.

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Presper Eckert at the University of Pennsylvania. ENIAC was also the first machine to use more than 2, vacuum tubes, using nearly 18, vacuum tubes. Storage of all those vacuum tubes and the machinery required to keep the cool took up over square meters square feet of floor space. Nonetheless, it had punched-card input and output and arithmetically had 1 multiplier, 1 divider-square rooter, and 20 adders employing decimal "ring counters," which served as adders and also as quick-access 0.

The executable instructions composing a program were embodied in the separate units of ENIAC, which were plugged together to form a route through the machine for the flow of computations.

Cogs and Calculators

During the s and s, there was considerable interest in 'hybrid' machines, where an analog section is controlled by and programmed via a digital section. However, such machines are now a rarity. In , at Cambridge University, Turing conceived the principle of the modern computer. He described an abstract digital computing machine consisting of a limitless memory and a scanner that moves back and forth through the memory, symbol by symbol, reading what it finds and writing further symbols 'On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem' Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society , Series 2, 42 : The actions of the scanner are dictated by a program of instructions that is stored in the memory in the form of symbols.

This is Turing's stored-program concept, and implicit in it is the possibility of the machine operating on and modifying its own program. In London in , in the course of what was, so far as is known, the earliest public lecture to mention computer intelligence, Turing said 'What we want is a machine that can learn from experience', adding that the 'possibility of letting the machine alter its own instructions provides the mechanism for this' 'Lecture to the London Mathematical Society on 20 February ', in Carpenter, B.

Turing's computing machine of is now known simply as the universal Turing machine. Cambridge mathematician Max Newman has remarked that right from the start Turing was interested in the possibility of actually building a computing machine of the sort that he had described Newman in interview with Christopher Evans 'The Pioneers of Computing: an Oral History of Computing, London Science Museum, Here he became familiar with Thomas Flowers' work involving large-scale high-speed electronic switching described below.

However, Turing could not turn to the project of building an electronic stored-program computing machine until the cessation of hostilities in Europe in Turing did give considerable thought to the question of machine intelligence during the wartime years. Colleagues at Bletchley Park recall numerous off-duty discussions with him on the topic, and at one point Turing circulated a typewritten report now lost setting out some of his ideas.


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One of these colleagues, Donald Michie who later founded the Department of Machine Intelligence and Perception at the University of Edinburgh , remembers Turing talking often about the possibility of computing machines 1 learning from experience and 2 solving problems by means of searching through the space of possible solutions, guided by rule-of-thumb principles Michie in interview with Copeland, and The modern term for the latter idea is 'heuristic search', a heuristic being any rule-of-thumb principle that cuts down the amount of searching required in order to find a solution to a problem.

At Bletchley Park Turing illustrated his ideas on machine intelligence by reference to chess. Michie recalls Turing experimenting with heuristics that later became common in chess programming in particular minimax and best-first. With some exceptions - including Babbage's purely mechanical engines, and the finger-powered National Accounting Machine - early digital computing machines were electromechanical. That is to say, their basic components were small, electrically-driven, mechanical switches called 'relays'.

These operate relatively slowly, whereas the basic components of an electronic computer - originally vacuum tubes valves - have no moving parts save electrons and so operate extremely fast. To Zuse belongs the honour of having built the first working general-purpose program-controlled digital computer. This machine, later called the Z3, was functioning in A program-controlled computer, as opposed to a stored-program computer, is set up for a new task by re-routing wires, by means of plugs etc.

Relays were too slow and unreliable a medium to make practicable the construction of a large-scale general-purpose digital computer notwithstanding valiant efforts in this direction by Aiken It was the development of high-speed digital techniques using vacuum tubes that made the modern computer possible. The earliest extensive use of vacuum tubes for digital data-processing appears to have been by the engineer Thomas Flowers, working in London at the British Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill. Material in this article concerning Flowers derives from personal communications from Flowers to Copeland and a tape-recorded interview between Flowers and Evans 'The Pioneers of Computing: an Oral History of Computing', London Science Museum, Electronic digital equipment designed by Flowers in , for controlling the connections between telephone exchanges, went into operation in , and involved between three and four thousand vacuum tubes running continuously.

In Flowers worked on an experimental high-speed electronic digital data-processing system, involving a data store. Flowers' aim, achieved after the war, was that such equipment should replace existing, less reliable, systems built from relays and used in telephone exchanges. Flowers did not investigate the idea of using electronic equipment for numerical calculation, but has remarked that at the outbreak of war with Germany in he was possibly the only person in Britain who realized that vacuum tubes could be used on a large scale for high-speed digital computation.

The earliest comparable use of vacuum tubes in the U. During the period Atanasoff developed techniques for using vacuum tubes to perform numerical calculations digitally. In , with the assistance of his student Clifford Berry, Atanasoff began building what is sometimes called the Atanasoff-Berry Computer, or ABC, a small-scale special-purpose electronic digital machine for the solution of systems of linear algebraic equations.

The machine contained approximately vacuum tubes. Although the electronic part of the machine functioned successfully, the computer as a whole never worked reliably, errors being introduced by the unsatisfactory binary card-reader. Work was discontinued in when Atanasoff left Iowa State. The first fully functioning electronic digital computer was Colossus , used by the Bletchley Park cryptanalysts from These were designed by Turing and Gordon Welchman building on earlier work by Polish cryptanalysts.

During the second half of , messages encoded by means of a totally different method began to be intercepted. Based on binary teleprinter code, Fish was used in preference to Morse-based Enigma for the encryption of high-level signals, for example messages from Hitler and other members of the German High Command. The first machine designed and built to Newman's specification, known as the Heath Robinson, was relay-based with electronic circuits for counting.

The electronic counters were designed by C. Wynn-Williams, who had been using thyratron tubes in counting circuits at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, since Installed in June , Heath Robinson was unreliable and slow, and its high-speed paper tapes were continually breaking, but it proved the worth of Newman's method. Turing recommended that Newman approach Flowers - who had previously assisted with the design of a machine for use against Enigma - to improve the reliability of the Robinson.

Flowers offered instead to design and build a fully electronic machine with a similar function to Heath Robinson. Colossus I was installed at Bletchley Park on 18 January In all, ten Colossi were built.

Mathematics, Cryptography and the birth of modern computing

From a cryptanalytic viewpoint, a major difference between the prototype Colossus I and the later machines was the addition of the so-called Special Attachment, consequent upon a key discovery by cryptanalysts Donald Michie and Jack Good. The wheel patterns were eventually changed daily by the Germans on each of the numerous links between Berlin and strategically critical remote stations, notably the various Army Group commanders in the field.

By there were as many 30 links in total. About ten of these were broken and read regularly. Colossus I contained approximately vacuum tubes and each of the subsequent machines approximately vacuum tubes. Like the smaller ABC, Colossus lacked two important features of modern computers. First, it had no internally stored programs.


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To set it up for a new task, the operator had to alter the machine's physical wiring, using plugs and switches. Second, Colossus was not a general-purpose machine, being designed for a specific cryptanalytic task involving counting and Boolean operations. The magnificent working model presently on display at Bletchley Park, now a museum, is a mock-up of Colossus I.


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Most of the Colossi were destroyed once hostilities ceased. The last Colossus stopped running in during its later years, it was used extensively for training. Those who knew of Colossus were prohibited by the Official Secrets Act from sharing their knowledge. Until the s, few had any idea that electronic computation had been used successfully during the second world war. In and , respectively, Good and Michie published notes giving the barest outlines of Colossus. By , Flowers had received clearance from the British Government to publish a full account of the hardware of Colossus I.

Details of the later machines and of the Special Attachment, the uses to which the Colossi were put, and the cryptanalytic algorithms that they ran, were not declassified until Even today some documents remain classified. For those acquainted with the universal Turing machine of , and the associated stored-program concept, Flowers' racks of digital electronic equipment indicated the feasibility of using large numbers of vacuum tubes to implement a high-speed general-purpose stored-program digital computing machine. A few months after his arrival at Manchester, Newman wrote as follows to the Princeton mathematician John von Neumann February :.

By about eighteen months ago I had decided to try my hand at starting up a machine unit when I got out. I am of course in close touch with Turing. Turing and Newman were thinking along similar lines. In Turing joined the National Physical Laboratory NPL in London, his brief to design and develop an electronic stored-program digital computer for scientific work. Artificial Intelligence was not far from Turing's thoughts: he described himself as 'building a brain' and remarked in a letter that he was 'more interested in the possibility of producing models of the action of the brain than in the practical applications to computing'.

Turing's 'Proposal for Development in the Mathematics Division of an Automatic Computing Engine ACE ' was the first relatively complete specification of an electronic stored-program general-purpose digital computer. The proposal is reprinted in full in the collection A. Copeland, in Furukawa, K. The earlier 'First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC' May , composed by von Neumann see below , contained little engineering detail, in particular concerning electronic hardware owing to restrictions in the U. Turing saw that speed and memory were the keys to computing Turing's colleague at NPL, Jim Wilkinson, has observed that Turing 'was obsessed with the idea of speed on the machine' in interview with Evans, op.

Turing's design had much in common with today's RISC architectures and it called for a high-speed memory of roughly the same capacity as an early Macintosh computer enormous by the standards of his day. Had Turing's ACE been built as planned it would have been in a different league from the other early computers. It was not until May that a small pilot model of the Automatic Computing Engine, built by Wilkinson, Edward Newman, Woodger, and others, first executed a program.

The G15 was arguably the first personal computer; over were sold worldwide. The earliest general-purpose stored-program electronic digital computer to work was built in the Royal Society Computing Machine Laboratory at Manchester University. The Manchester 'Baby', as it became known, was constructed by the engineers F.

A Brief History of Computing

Williams and Tom Kilburn, and performed its first calculation on 21 June The tiny program, stored on the face of a cathode ray tube, was just seventeen instructions long. A much enlarged version of the machine, with a programming system designed by Turing, became the world's first commercially available computer, the Ferranti Mark I. The first to be completed was installed at Manchester University in February ; in all about ten were sold, in Britain, Canada, Holland and Italy. The fundamental logico-mathematical contributions by Turing and Newman to the triumph at Manchester have been neglected, and the Manchester machine is nowadays remembered as the work of Williams and Kilburn.

A brief history of decentralized computing

Indeed, Newman's role in the development of computers has never been sufficiently emphasised due perhaps to his thoroughly self-effacing way of relating the relevant events. It was Newman who, in a lecture in Cambridge in , introduced Turing to the concept which led directly to the Turing machine: Newman defined a constructive process as one that a machine can carry out Newman in interview with Evans, op. As a result of his acquaintance with Turing's work of , Newman became interested in the possibilities of computing machinery in, as he put it, 'a rather theoretical way'.

During the building of Colossus, Newman tried to interest Flowers in Turing's paper - birthplace of the stored-program concept - but Flowers in his own words 'didn't really understand much of it'.