A History of Computing through Representation

In this lecture we will discuss the history of computing and explain why it is really a sequence of ideas in representing data, operations, and instructions.

What is a computer?

A calculating device that can follow detailed instructions.

Note that this definition does not restrict computers to the digital devices we use these days. Computers weren't always digital, and they may not be digital in the future.

To create a computer one needs a way to represent

  • data (such as numbers, letters, and/or other symbols),
  • instructions that tell the computer what to do. There are two kinds of instructions:
    • data manipulation instructions (such as addition and multiplication, to manipulate data), and
    • control instructions (to describe how to sequence operations, such as with if-else).

Of course, modern computers manipulate much more than numbers and symbols: They can deal with objects such as images, movies, animations, sound, etc.

Some of the Representations so far...

People have used a variety of materials over the years for these representations. In a sense, the history of computing is a history of representations. The table below shows just a few of the devices people have used over the centuries to compute. As you can see, they have used a variety of objects to represent numbers, operations and instructions.

For another version of this history, see the Wikipedia entry on the history of computing hardware. You can also look up the various devices on the web.

Numbers Operations Instructions Computer Inventor
beads addition: moving beads N/A abacus
Chinese, Sumerians
(5000 BCE)
Position of the beads correspond to numbers. Used even today!
dials addition: rotating dials N/A Pascaline
Blaise Pascal
Hoping to help his tax-commissioner father, young Pascal developed this little device that could add reliably.
gears addition, multiplication: stepped drum N/A Leibniz's Stepped Reckoner
Leibniz's machine
G.W. von Leibniz
The stepped drum could accommodate repeated additions and subtractions, effectively enabling multiplication and division.
gears, punched cards all arithmetic operations: gears on cylinder decision making ("if-then"): mill Analytical Engine
Analytical Engine
Charles Babbage, inventor;
Lady Ada Lovelace, programmer;
(1833-1843 abandoned)
Arguably the first design of a modern computer. We know a lot about it due to Lady Ada's detailed writings and her programs. Steam power enabled it to perform sequences of operations and even choose among multiple paths of execution. Unfortunately, never built, due to the complexity of the design and a cessation of funding.
metal bars in glass, punched film all arithmetic operations: electricity electro-mechanical Z3
Zuse's Z3 machine
Conrad Zuse
Built in his livingroom, was offered to the German Army but it was not accepted. During WWII it was bombed and rebuilt better every time
vacuum tubes all arithmetic operations: switches complete set of control instructions: magnetic drums EDVAC
John von Neumann
A fully electronic (no mechanical parts) computer with programs stored in the same memory as data (the von Neumann architecture). (Possibly the first case of plagiarism in the computing industry)

This is only a partial history of computing devices. The emphasis here is on innovative representations, not in a complete set of computing devices developed over the years.

Small is Fast

In recent years, the emphasis has been on concise packaging, not much innovation on representation. Small is fast, but smaller is faster. The size of the computer was directly related to the size of its smallest component and can be described in four computer generations:

1st Generation: vacuum tube 1945-1956 vacuum tubes A vacuum tube allows electricity to move only in one direction. It turns out that this is an essential characteristic for electronic computers. But a vacuum tube is relatively large. Machines with hundreds of thousands of vacuum tubes were built, taking up space of several floors in big buildings, and consuming huge amounts of energy.
2nd Generation:
1956-1963 transistor The invention of the transistor in the mid-50's replaced the vacuum tube in computers (but also in televisions and radios). Computers could now fit in only one room.
3rd Generation:
integrated circuits
1964-1971 integrated circuit The integrated circuit was just a combination of thousands of transistors and tiny wires onto a small "chip" made of silicon. As a result, the computer could now fit onto a desk and the monitor became the largest visible part of the computer.
4th Generation:
Very Large Scale Integrated
(VLSI) circuits
1972-today VLSI chip Gazillions of transistors and wires fit onto a small chip, making it possible to have all the major components of a computer and its memory onto the same chip. The computer can now fit in your palm and pocket.

The Future

What will the Future 5th Generation look like?

One thing is certain, that there is a human desire for the highest computational power possible. But it is not clear today how faster machines will be developed. We understand that we cannot keep on creating faster uni-processor computers. We need some kind of multi-processor computers. Today, you can buy a computer with two or four processors that work independently.

What will the future's massively parallel computers be like? They could be...

Containing millions of interconnected 4th Generation computers

connection machine

Composed of millions of DNA strands in plastic tubes

complementary DNA strands

Quantum Computing relies on qubits (quantum bits) that represent the superposition of data nanotubes

a molecule
      representing a quantum bit (a qubit)

We do not know yet. Maybe all of the above. Maybe something more exotic. In any case we expect it to be at least as surprising and exciting as it has been so far.