History of the Computer Industry in America

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 people?s lives for the
The very earliest existence of the modern day computer?s
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
?digital calculating machine?. It could only add numbers and they had
to be entered by turning dials. It was designed to help Pascal?s father
who was a tax collector (Soma, 32).
In the early 1800?s, 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 ?punchcards?. 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