History of the Computer Industry in America 934

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History of the Computer Industry in America

America and the Computer Industry

Only once in a lifetime will a new invention come about to touch

every aspect of our lives. Such a device that changes the way we work,

live, and play is a special one, indeed. A machine that has done all

this and more now exists in nearly every business in the U.S. and one

out of every two households (Hall, 156). This incredible invention is

the computer. The electronic computer has been around for over a

half-century, but its ancestors have been around for 2000 years.

However, only in the last 40 years has it changed the American society.

>From the first wooden abacus to the latest high-speed microprocessor,

the computer has changed nearly every aspect of peopleOs lives for the


The very earliest existence of the modern day computerOs

ancestor is the abacus. These date back to almost 2000 years ago. It

is simply a wooden rack holding parallel wires on which beads are

strung. When these beads are moved along the wire according to

“programming” rules that the user must memorize, all ordinary arithmetic

operations can be performed (Soma, 14). The next innovation in

computers took place in 1694 when Blaise Pascal invented the first

Odigital calculating machineO. It could only add numbers and they had

to be entered by turning dials. It was designed to help PascalOs father

who was a tax collector (Soma, 32).

In the early 1800Os, a mathematics professor named Charles

Babbage designed an automatic calculation machine. It was steam powered

and could store up to 1000 50-digit numbers. Built in to his machine

were operations that included everything a modern general-purpose

computer would need. It was programmed by–and stored data on–cards

with holes punched in them, appropriately called OpunchcardsO. His

inventions were failures for the most part because of the lack of

precision machining techniques used at the time and the lack of demand

for such a device (Soma, 46).

After Babbage, people began to lose interest in computers.

However, between 1850 and 1900 there were great advances in mathematics

and physics that began to rekindle the interest (Osborne, 45). Many of

these new advances involved complex calculations and formulas that were

very time consuming for human calculation. The first major use for a

computer in the U.S. was during the 1890 census. Two men, Herman

Hollerith and James Powers, developed a new punched-card system that

could automatically read information on cards without human intervention

(Gulliver, 82). Since the population of the U.S. was increasing so

fast, the computer was an essential tool in tabulating the totals.

These advantages were noted by commercial industries and soon

led to the development of improved punch-card business-machine systems

by International Business Machines (IBM), Remington-Rand, Burroughs, and

other corporations. By modern standards the punched-card machines were

slow, typically processing from 50 to 250 cards per minute, with each

card holding up to 80 digits. At the time, however, punched cards were

an enormous step forward; they provided a means of input, output, and

memory storage on a massive scale. For more than 50 years following

their first use, punched-card machines did the bulk of the world’s

business computing and a good portion of the computing work in science

(Chposky, 73).

By the late 1930s punched-card machine techniques had become so

well established and reliable that Howard Hathaway Aiken, in

collaboration with engineers at IBM, undertook construction of a large

automatic digital computer based on standard IBM electromechanical

parts. Aiken’s machine, called the Harvard Mark I, handled 23-digit

numbers and could perform all four arithmetic operations. Also, it had

special built-in programs to handle logarithms and trigonometric

functions. The Mark I was controlled from prepunched paper tape.

Output was by card punch and electric typewriter. It was slow,

requiring 3 to 5 seconds for a multiplication, but it was fully

automatic and could complete long computations without human

intervention (Chposky, 103).

The outbreak of World War II produced a desperate need for

computing capability, especially for the military. New weapons systems

were produced which needed trajectory tables and other essential data.

In 1942, John P. Eckert, John W. Mauchley, and their associates at the

University of Pennsylvania decided to build a high-speed electronic

computer to do the job. This machine became known as ENIAC, for

“Electrical Numerical Integrator And Calculator”. It could multiply two

numbers at the rate of 300 products per second, by finding the value of

each product from a multiplication table stored in its memory. ENIAC was

thus about 1,000 times faster than the previous generation of computers

(Dolotta, 47).

ENIAC used 18,000 standard vacuum tubes, occupied 1800 square

feet of floor space, and used about 180,000 watts of electricity. It

used punched-card input and output. The ENIAC was very difficult to

program because one had to essentially re-wire it to perform whatever

task he wanted the computer to do. It was, however, efficient in

handling the particular programs for which it had been designed. ENIAC

is generally accepted as the first successful high-speed electronic

digital computer and was used in many applications from 1946 to 1955

(Dolotta, 50).

Mathematician John von Neumann was very interested in the ENIAC.

In 1945 he undertook a theoretical study of computation that

demonstrated that a computer could have a very simple and yet be able to

execute any kind of computation effectively by means of proper

programmed control without the need for any changes in hardware. Von

Neumann came up with incredible ideas for methods of building and

organizing practical, fast computers. These ideas, which came to be

referred to as the stored-program technique, became fundamental for

future generations of high-speed digital computers and were universally

adopted (Hall, 73).

The first wave of modern programmed electronic computers to take

advantage of these improvements appeared in 1947. This group included

computers using random access memory (RAM), which is a memory designed

to give almost constant access to any particular piece of information

(Hall, 75). These machines had punched-card or punched-tape input and

output devices and RAMs of 1000-word capacity. Physically, they were

much more compact than ENIAC: some were about the size of a grand piano

and required 2500 small electron tubes. This was quite an improvement

over the earlier machines. The first-generation stored-program

computers required considerable maintenance, usually attained 70% to 80%

reliable operation, and were used for 8 to 12 years. Typically, they

were programmed directly in machine language, although by the mid-1950s

progress had been made in several aspects of advanced programming. This

group of machines included EDVAC and UNIVAC, the first commercially

available computers (Hazewindus, 102).

The UNIVAC was developed by John W. Mauchley and John Eckert,

Jr. in the 1950Os. Together they had formed the Mauchley-Eckert

Computer Corporation, AmericaOs first computer company in the 1940Os.

During the development of the UNIVAC, they began to run short on funds

and sold their company to the larger Remington-Rand Corporation.

Eventually they built a working UNIVAC computer. It was delivered to

the U.S. Census Bureau in 1951 where it was used to help tabulate the

U.S. population (Hazewindus, 124).

Early in the 1950s two important engineering discoveries changed

the electronic computer field. The first computers were made with

vacuum tubes, but by the late 1950Os computers were being made out of

transistors, which were smaller, less expensive, more reliable, and more

efficient (Shallis, 40). In 1959, Robert Noyce, a physicist at the

Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation, invented the integrated circuit, a

tiny chip of silicon that contained an entire electronic circuit. Gone

was the bulky, unreliable, but fast machine; now computers began to

become more compact, more reliable and have more capacity (Shallis, 49).

These new technical discoveries rapidly found their way into new

models of digital computers. Memory storage capacities increased 800%

in commercially available machines by the early 1960s and speeds

increased by an equally large margin. These machines were very

expensive to purchase or to rent and were especially expensive to

operate because of the cost of hiring programmers to perform the complex

operations the computers ran. Such computers were typically found in

large computer centers–operated by industry, government, and private

laboratories–staffed with many programmers and support personnel

(Rogers, 77). By 1956, 76 of IBMOs large computer mainframes were in

use, compared with only 46 UNIVACOs (Chposky, 125).

In the 1960s efforts to design and develop the fastest possible

computers with the greatest capacity reached a turning point with the

completion of the LARC machine for Livermore Radiation Laboratories by

the Sperry-Rand Corporation, and the Stretch computer by IBM. The LARC

had a core memory of 98,000 words and multiplied in 10 microseconds.

Stretch was provided with several ranks of memory having slower access

for the ranks of greater capacity, the fastest access time being less

than 1 microseconds and the total capacity in the vicinity of 100

million words (Chposky, 147).

During this time the major computer manufacturers began to offer

a range of computer capabilities, as well as various computer-related

equipment. These included input means such as consoles and card

feeders; output means such as page printers, cathode-ray-tube displays,

and graphing devices; and optional magnetic-tape and magnetic-disk file

storage. These found wide use in business for such applications as

accounting, payroll, inventory control, ordering supplies, and billing.

Central processing units (CPUs) for such purposes did not need to be

very fast arithmetically and were primarily used to access large amounts

of records on file. The greatest number of computer systems were

delivered for the larger applications, such as in hospitals for keeping

track of patient records, medications, and treatments given. They were

also used in automated library systems and in database systems such as

the Chemical Abstracts system, where computer records now on file cover

nearly all known chemical compounds (Rogers, 98).

The trend during the 1970s was, to some extent, away from

extremely powerful, centralized computational centers and toward a

broader range of applications for less-costly computer systems. Most

continuous-process manufacturing, such as petroleum refining and

electrical-power distribution systems, began using computers of

relatively modest capability for controlling and regulating their

activities. In the 1960s the programming of applications problems was

an obstacle to the self-sufficiency of moderate-sized on-site computer

installations, but great advances in applications programming languages

removed these obstacles. Applications languages became available for

controlling a great range of manufacturing processes, for computer

operation of machine tools, and for many other tasks (Osborne, 146). In

1971 Marcian E. Hoff, Jr., an engineer at the Intel Corporation,

invented the microprocessor and another stage in the deveopment of the

computer began (Shallis, 121).

A new revolution in computer hardware was now well under way,

involving miniaturization of computer-logic circuitry and of component

manufacture by what are called large-scale integration techniques. In

the 1950s it was realized that “scaling down” the size of electronic

digital computer circuits and parts would increase speed and efficiency

and improve performance. However, at that time the manufacturing

methods were not good enough to accomplish such a task. About 1960

photoprinting of conductive circuit boards to eliminate wiring became

highly developed. Then it became possible to build resistors and

capacitors into the circuitry by photographic means (Rogers, 142). In

the 1970s entire assemblies, such as adders, shifting registers, and

counters, became available on tiny chips of silicon. In the 1980s very

large scale integration (VLSI), in which hundreds of thousands of

transistors are placed on a single chip, became increasingly common.

Many companies, some new to the computer field, introduced in the 1970s

programmable minicomputers supplied with software packages. The

size-reduction trend continued with the introduction of personal

computers, which are programmable machines small enough and inexpensive

enough to be purchased and used by individuals (Rogers, 153).

One of the first of such machines was introduced in January

1975. Popular Electronics magazine provided plans that would allow any

electronics wizard to build his own small, programmable computer for

about $380 (Rose, 32). The computer was called the OAltair 8800O. Its

programming involved pushing buttons and flipping switches on the front

of the box. It didnOt include a monitor or keyboard, and its

applications were very limited (Jacobs, 53). Even though, many orders

came in for it and several famous owners of computer and software

manufacturing companies got their start in computing through the Altair.

For example, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, founders of Apple Computer,

built a much cheaper, yet more productive version of the Altair and

turned their hobby into a business (Fluegelman, 16).

After the introduction of the Altair 8800, the personal computer

industry became a fierce battleground of competition. IBM had been the

computer industry standard for well over a half-century. They held

their position as the standard when they introduced their first personal

computer, the IBM Model 60 in 1975 (Chposky, 156). However, the newly

formed Apple Computer company was releasing its own personal computer,

the Apple II (The Apple I was the first computer designed by Jobs and

Wozniak in WozniakOs garage, which was not produced on a wide scale).

Software was needed to run the computers as well. Microsoft developed a

Disk Operating System (MS-DOS) for the IBM computer while Apple

developed its own software system (Rose, 37). Because Microsoft had now

set the software standard for IBMs, every software manufacturer had to

make their software compatible with MicrosoftOs. This would lead to

huge profits for Microsoft (Cringley, 163).

The main goal of the computer manufacturers was to make the

computer as affordable as possible while increasing speed, reliability,

and capacity. Nearly every computer manufacturer accomplished this and

computers popped up everywhere. Computers were in businesses keeping

track of inventories. Computers were in colleges aiding students in

research. Computers were in laboratories making complex calculations at

high speeds for scientists and physicists. The computer had made its

mark everywhere in society and built up a huge industry (Cringley, 174).

The future is promising for the computer industry and its

technology. The speed of processors is expected to double every year

and a half in the coming years. As manufacturing techniques are further

perfected the prices of computer systems are expected to steadily fall.

However, since the microprocessor technology will be increasing, itOs

higher costs will offset the drop in price of older processors. In other

words, the price of a new computer will stay about the same from year to

year, but technology will steadily increase (Zachary, 42)

Since the end of World War II, the computer industry has grown

from a standing start into one of the biggest and most profitable

industries in the United States. It now comprises thousands of

companies, making everything from multi-million dollar high-speed

supercomputers to printout paper and floppy disks. It employs millions

of people and generates tens of billions of dollars in sales each year

(Malone, 192). Surely, the computer has impacted every aspect of

peopleOs lives. It has affected the way people work and play. It has

made everyoneOs life easier by doing difficult work for people. The

computer truly is one of the most incredible inventions in history.

Works Cited

Chposky, James. Blue Magic. New York: Facts on File Publishing. 1988.

Cringley, Robert X. Accidental Empires. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley

Publishing, 1992.

Dolotta, T.A. Data Processing: 1940-1985. New York: John Wiley & Sons,


Fluegelman, Andrew. OA New WorldO, MacWorld. San Jose, Ca: MacWorld

Publishing, February, 1984 (Premire Issue).

Hall, Peter. Silicon Landscapes. Boston: Allen & Irwin, 1985

Gulliver, David. Silicon Valey and Beyond. Berkeley, Ca: Berkeley Area

Government Press, 1981.

Hazewindus, Nico. The U.S. Microelectronics Industry. New York:

Pergamon Press, 1988.

Jacobs, Christopher W. OThe Altair 8800O, Popular Electronics. New

York: Popular Electronics Publishing, January 1975.

Malone, Michael S. The Big Scare: The U.S. Coputer Industry. Garden

City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1985.

Osborne, Adam. Hypergrowth. Berkeley, Ca: Idthekkethan Publishing

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