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Computers Timeline


The 20th century was nearly into its fourth decade before the first electronic computer came along, and those early machines were behemoths capable of only the most basic tasks. Today, tiny "handhelds" are used for word processing and storage, delivery of documents and images, inventory management, and remote access by workers to central offices. Programmable electronic devices of all sorts have come to pervade modern society to such a degree that future generations may well designate the 20th century as the Computer Age.

  1936   "A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits"

Electrical engineer and mathematician Claude Shannon, in his master’s thesis, "A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits," uses Boolean algebra to establish a working model for digital circuits. This paper, as well as later research by Shannon, lays the groundwork for the future telecommunications and computer industries.

  1939   Atanasoff-Berry Computer, the first electronic computer

John Atanasoff and Clifford Berry at Iowa State College design the first electronic computer. The obscure project, called the Atanasoff-Berry Computer (ABC), incorporates binary arithmetic and electronic switching. Before the computer is perfected, Atanasoff is recruited by the Naval Ordnance Laboratory and never resumes its research and development. However, in the summer of 1941, at Atanasoff’s invitation, computer pioneer John Mauchly of the University of Pennsylvania, visits Atanasoff in Iowa and sees the ABC demonstrated.

  1939   First binary digital computers are developed

The first binary digital computers are developed. Bell Labs’s George Stibitz designs the Complex Number Calculator, which performs mathematical operations in binary form using on-off relays, and finds the quotient of two 8-digit numbers in 30 seconds. In Germany, Konrad Zuse develops the first programmable calculator, the Z2, using binary numbers and Boolean algebra—programmed with punched tape.

  1943   First vacuum-tube programmable logic calculator

Colossus, the world’s first vacuum-tube programmable logic calculator, is built in Britain for the purpose of breaking Nazi codes. On average, Colossus deciphers a coded message in two hours.

  1945   Specifications of a stored-program computer

Two mathematicians, Briton Alan Turing and Hungarian John von Neumann, work independently on the specifications of a stored-program computer. Von Neumann writes a document describing a computer on which data and programs can be stored. Turing publishes a paper on an Automatic Computing Engine, based on the principles of speed and memory.

  1946   First electronic computer put into operation

The first electronic computer put into operation is developed late in World War II by John Mauchly and John Presper Eckert at the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Electrical Engineering. The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), used for ballistics computations, weighs 30 tons and includes 18,000 vacuum tubes, 6,000 switches, and 1,500 relays.

  1947   Transistor is invented

John Bardeen, Walter H. Brattain, and William B. Shockley of Bell Telephone Laboratories invent the transistor.

  1949   First stored-program compute is built

The Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator (EDSAC), the first stored-program computer, is built and programmed by British mathematical engineer Maurice Wilkes.

  1951   First computer designed for U.S. business

Eckert and Mauchly, now with their own company (later sold to Remington Rand), design UNIVAC (UNIVersal Automatic Computer)—the first computer for U.S. business. Its breakthrough feature: magnetic tape storage to replace punched cards. First developed for the Bureau of the Census to aid in census data collection, UNIVAC passes a highly public test by correctly predicting Dwight Eisenhower’s victory over Adlai Stevenson in the 1952 presidential race. But months before UNIVAC is completed, the British firm J. Lyons & Company unveils the first computer for business use, the LEO (Lyons Electronic Office), which eventually calculated the company’s weekly payroll.

  1952   First computer compiler

Grace Murray Hopper, a senior mathematician at Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation and a programmer for Harvard’s Mark I computer, develops the first computer compiler, a program that translates computer instructions from English into machine language. She later creates Flow-Matic, the first programming language to use English words and the key influence for COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language). Attaining the rank of rear admiral in a navy career that brackets her work at Harvard and Eckert-Mauchly, Hopper eventually becomes the driving force behind many advanced automated programming technologies.

  1955   First disk drive for random-access storage of data

IBM engineers led by Reynold Johnson design the first disk drive for random-access storage of data, offering more surface area for magnetization and storage than earlier drums. In later drives a protective "boundary layer" of air between the heads and the disk surface would be provided by the spinning disk itself. The Model 305 Disk Storage unit, later called the Random Access Method of Accounting and Control, is released in 1956 with a stack of fifty 24-inch aluminum disks storing 5 million bytes of data.

  1957   FORTRAN becomes commercially available

FORTRAN (for FORmula TRANslation), a high-level programming language developed by an IBM team led by John Backus, becomes commercially available. FORTRAN is a way to express scientific and mathematical computations with a programming language similar to mathematical formulas. Backus and his team claim that the FORTRAN compiler produces machine code as efficient as any produced directly by a human programmer. Other programming languages quickly follow, including ALGOL, intended as a universal computer language, in 1958 and COBOL in 1959. ALGOL has a profound impact on future languages such as Simula (the first object-oriented programming language), Pascal, and C/C++. FORTRAN becomes the standard language for scientific computer applications, and COBOL is developed by the U.S. government to standardize its commercial application programs. Both dominate the computer-language world for the next 2 decades.

  1958   Integrated circuit invented

Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments and Robert Noyce of Fairchild Semiconductor independently invent the integrated circuit.  (see Electronics.)

  1960   Digital Equipment Corporation introduces the "compact" PDP-1

Digital Equipment Corporation introduces the "compact" PDP-1 for the science and engineering market. Not including software or peripherals, the system costs $125,000, fits in a corner of a room, and doesn’t require air conditioning. Operated by one person, it features a cathode-ray tube display and a light pen. In 1962 at MIT a PDP-1 becomes the first computer to run a video game when Steve Russell programs it to play "Spacewar." The PDP-8, released 5 years later, is the first computer to fully use integrated circuits.

  1964   BASIC

Dartmouth professors John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz develop the BASIC (Beginners All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) programming language specifically for the school's new timesharing computer system. Designed for non-computer-science students, it is easier to use than FORTRAN. Other schools and universities adopt it, and computer manufacturers begin to provide BASIC translators with their systems.

  1968   Computer mouse makes its public debut

The computer mouse makes its public debut during a demonstration at a computer conference in San Francisco. Its inventor, Douglas Engelbart of the Stanford Research Institute, also demonstrates other user-friendly technologies such as hypermedia with object linking and addressing. Engelbart receives a patent for the mouse 2 years later.

  1970   Palo Alto Research Center (PARC)

Xerox Corporation assembles a team of researchers in information and physical sciences in Palo Alto, California, with the goal of creating "the architecture of information." Over the next 30 years innovations emerging from the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) include the concept of windows (1972), the first real personal computer (Alto in 1973), laser printers (1973), the concept of WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) word processors (1974), and EtherNet (1974). In 2002 Xerox PARC incorporates as an independent company—Palo Alto Research Center, Inc.

  1975   First home computer is marketed to hobbyists

The Altair 8800, widely considered the first home computer, is marketed to hobbyists by Micro Instrumentation Telemetry Systems. The build-it-yourself kit doesn’t have a keyboard, monitor, or its own programming language; data are input with a series of switches and lights. But it includes an Intel microprocessor and costs less than $400. Seizing an opportunity, fledgling entrepreneurs Bill Gates and Paul Allen propose writing a version of BASIC for the new computer. They start the project by forming a partnership called Microsoft.

  1977   Apple II is released

Apple Computer, founded by electronics hobbyists Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, releases the Apple II, a desktop personal computer for the mass market that features a keyboard, video monitor, mouse, and random-access memory (RAM) that can be expanded by the user. Independent software manufacturers begin to create applications for it.

  1979   First laptop computer is designed

What is thought to be the first laptop computer is designed by William Moggridge of GRiD Systems Corporation in England. The GRiD Compass 1109 has 340 kilobytes of bubble memory and a folding electroluminescent display screen in a magnesium case. Used by NASA in the early 1980s for its shuttle program, the "portable computer" is patented by GriD in 1982.

  1979   First commercially successful business application

Harvard MBA student Daniel Bricklin and programmer Bob Frankston launch the VisiCalc spreadsheet for the Apple II, a program that helps drive sales of the personal computer and becomes its first commercially successful business application. VisiCalc owns the spreadsheet market for nearly a decade before being eclipsed by Lotus 1-2-3, a spreadsheet program designed by a former VisiCalc employee.

  1981   IBM Personal Computer released

IBM introduces the IBM Personal Computer with an Intel 8088 microprocessor and an operating system—MS-DOS—designed by Microsoft. Fully equipped with 64 kilobytes of memory and a floppy disk drive, it costs under $3,000.

  1984   Macintosh is introduced

Apple introduces the Macintosh, a low-cost, plug-and-play personal computer whose central processor fits on a single circuit board. Although it doesn’t offer enough power for business applications, its easy-to-use graphic interface finds fans in education and publishing.

  1984   CD-ROM introduced

Philips and Sony combine efforts to introduce the CD-ROM (compact disc read-only memory), patented in 1970 by James T. Russell. With the advent of the CD, data storage and retrieval shift from magnetic to optical technology. The CD can store more than 300,000 pages worth of information—more than the capacity of 450 floppy disks—meaning it can hold digital text, video, and audio files. Advances in the 1990s allow users not only to read prerecorded CDs but also to download, write, and record information onto their own disks.

  1985   Windows 1.0 is released

Microsoft releases Windows 1.0, operating system software that features a Macintosh-like graphical user interface (GUI) with drop-down menus, windows, and mouse support. Because the program runs slowly on available PCs, most users stick to MS-DOS. Higher-powered microprocessors beginning in the late 1980s make the next attempts—Windows 3.0 and Windows 95—more successful.

  1991   World Wide Web

The World Wide Web becomes available to the general public (see Internet). 

  1992   Personal digital assistant

Apple chairman John Sculley coins the term "personal digital assistant" to refer to handheld computers. One of the first on the market is Apple’s Newton, which has a liquid crystal display operated with a stylus. The more successful Palm Pilot is released by 3Com in 1996.

  1999   Palm VII connected organizer

Responding to a more mobile workforce, handheld computer technology leaps forward with the Palm VII connected organizer, the combination of a computer with 2 megabytes of RAM and a port for a wireless phone. At less than $600, the computer weighs 6.7 ounces and operates for up to 3 weeks on two AAA batteries. Later versions offer 8 megabytes of RAM, Internet connectivity, and color screens for less than $500.


     1 - Binary Computer
     2 - EDVAC
     3 - UNIVAC
     4 - Applications
     5 - Personal Computers
     Essay - William H. Gates III

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