These days we take computers very much for granted, but even the word “computer”, as defined as an electronic device, was only coined in 1945. Before that, a computer was simply a person who calculates. The last 70 odd years have seen a revolution in computing power beyond the wildest dreams of those early computing pioneers. However, without them none of the devices we use every single day could have been created. In celebration of their contribution, we’ve taken a look back at the early days of modern computing.
As more and more electronic devices emerged in the 1940s, the meaning of the word computer shifted. Skilled workers were needed both to quickly apply math and to operate massive and clunky early electronic computers. However, programming, or operating as it was called back then, was seen as a clerical task, with all the institutional glamour of female-dominated secretarial pools.
Indeed, the number of women involved in operating early computers goes against much of the mystification of computer science as a somehow inherently male endeavor. Some have pointed out that the marketing of early home computers as toys for boys coincided with dropping numbers of girls perceiving computers as an interesting career path.
Colossus was the first electronic digital programmable computer. It was developed to crack German ciphers during World War II, which it did for the first time on February 5, 1944. “The” Colossus was actually a series of 10 different Colossus computers, which were not Turing-complete during their lifetime—however, modern research has shown that they did have the potential for it.
Because of the secretive nature of the Colossus’s purpose, the machines were dismantled after the war and the IT workers who worked with them received very little recognition.
Announced on February 14, 1946, ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) was the first Turing-complete electronic programmable computer. It was designed to calculate artillery firing tables for the US Army’s Ballistic Research Laboratory.
ENIAC did not use programming languages. Operators would have to manually manipulate switches and cables. It was a complex task, taking weeks to plan and days to physically complete. ENIAC had six main operators: Kay McNulty, Betty Jennings, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Frances Bilas and Ruth Lichterman.
EDVAC (Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer) was intended to be an improvement on ENIAC, smaller and more efficient. Like ENIAC, it was designed for the US Army’s Ballistic Research Laboratory. It used binary rather than decimal, and was the first internally stored program computer. EDVAC paved the way for many later computers.
After WWII, Cambridge University wanted a practical computer that could help its mathematicians, scientists and engineers solve calculations. For this to happen, the computer would need to be able to do more than a single task as well as be operated by many researchers rather than a handful of knowledgeable people. EDSAC (Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator) was indeed accessible and practical, and both it and its successors ended up helping researchers at the university with their work—including Nobel Prize winners Martin Ryle and Andrew Huxley.
US President Kennedy initiated the Space Race in 1961, during the height of the Cold War. The program’s goal of putting a man on the moon wouldn’t have been possible without an integrated on-ship computer that sprung from huge, government-sponsored advancements in systems engineering. The resulting AGC (Apollo Guidance Computer) was one of the first to use integrated circuits and introduced the world to many concepts later used to “bake in” computers with different kinds of machinery that rely on computers to function – everything from fly-by-wire systems, autopilots to today’s industrial systems and gadgets.
Margaret Hamilton, leader of the software team for AGC made groundbreaking discoveries in software engineering at NASA. Simply put, she invented methods for letting computers with critical tasks juggle many instructions while taking human interaction into account.
Needless to say, the story of computing and IT workers took many dramatic twists and turns in decades that followed Margaret Hamilton and co, but we should never forget how they helped make our world what it is today.
All EDSAC images: Copyright Computer Laboratory, University of Cambridge. Reproduced by permission.