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It Thinks Therefore It Is: The Evolution of the Computer

Jeffrey Syken

It’s all around us, hiding in plain sight; The Computer Age. For the first three decades following the end of WWII, computer technology – both analog and digital – advanced by leaps and bounds, due in large part to the work of men such as Vannevar Bush (of MIT) and mathematician Alan Turing; the former with his “Differential Analyzer” (of the early 1930s) and the latter having broken the “unbreakable” German “Enigma” code (by helping to create “Colossus” for the code-breakers at Bletchley Park during WWII). It was upon these interwar and wartime advances in computer technology that ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) was born. A top-secret project launched in 1943 (to assist in ballistic calculations), it would not bear fruit until February 1946, when it became the world’s first large-scale electronic general-purpose digital computer.

The war effort, on both the allied and axis sides, helped spur advances in computer technology (i.e. guidance system for the German V-2 rocket). However, the evolution of the computer can be traced as far back as the ancient world, where the Chinese Abacus served as a type of computer. By the Middle Ages, it would be the mechanical clock that really moved things forward and lead to the true predecessor of the modern computer: Automata. Automatons, with their intricate mechanisms and “programs” (i.e. cams, punched tape etc.) could write, draw and even play the piano, to the amazement of all. Later, player pianos would provide pre-programmed entertainment for the masses. Most important to the advancement of computers would be electricity. Now, with the ability of the vacuum tube to turn currents “on” and/or “off” rapidly (along with the introduction of the binary code system of “0s” and “1s”), the stage was set for rapid advancements in the 20th Century.

Established in 1911 (by combining several companies involved with time clocks, butcher’s scales and accounting machines) into a new company: C-T-R (Computing-Tabulating-Recording), Thomas Watson, Sr. laid the groundwork for what would become a global force in business, technology, management and culture. In 1924, Watson renamed the company “IBM” (International Business Machines) and the rest, as they say, is history. “Big Blue” has left an indelible mark on the world with its advances in business machines - both in the interwar years and, more importantly, in the field of electronic data processing computers in the post-WWII era. By the mid-1950s, IBM dominated the market, so much so that they were accused of creating a trust (akin to Standard Oil in the 19th Century). Much of IBM's post-war success is due in large part to the vision of Tom Watson, Jr., who took his father’s famous “THINK” philosophy to a whole other level.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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