Computer Technology Research Paper Topics

This list of computer technology research paper topics provides the list of 33 potential topics for research papers and an overview article on the history of computer technology.

1. Analog Computers

Paralleling the split between analog and digital computers, in the 1950s the term analog computer was a posteriori projected onto pre-existing classes of mechanical, electrical, and electromechanical computing artifacts, subsuming them under the same category. The concept of analog, like the technical demarcation between analog and digital computer, was absent from the vocabulary of those classifying artifacts for the 1914 Edinburgh Exhibition, the first world’s fair emphasizing computing technology, and this leaves us with an invaluable index of the impressive number of classes of computing artifacts amassed during the few centuries of capitalist modernity. True, from the debate between ‘‘smooth’’ and ‘‘lumpy’’ artificial lines of computing (1910s) to the differentiation between ‘‘continuous’’ and ‘‘cyclic’’ computers (1940s), the subsequent analog–digital split became possible by the multitudinous accumulation of attempts to decontextualize the computer from its socio-historical use alternately to define the ideal computer technically. The fact is, however, that influential classifications of computing technology from the previous decades never provided an encompassing demarcation compared to the analog– digital distinction used since the 1950s. Historians of the digital computer find that the experience of working with software was much closer to art than science, a process that was resistant to mass production; historians of the analog computer find this to have been typical of working with the analog computer throughout all its aspects. The historiography of the progress of digital computing invites us to turn to the software crisis, which perhaps not accidentally, surfaced when the crisis caused by the analog ended. Noticeably, it was not until the process of computing with a digital electronic computer became sufficiently visual by the addition of a special interface—to substitute for the loss of visualization that was previously provided by the analog computer—that the analog computer finally disappeared.

2. Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) is the field of software engineering that builds computer systems and occasionally robots to perform tasks that require intelligence. The term ‘‘artificial intelligence’’ was coined by John McCarthy in 1958, then a graduate student at Princeton, at a summer workshop held at Dartmouth in 1956. This two-month workshop marks the official birth of AI, which brought together young researchers who would nurture the field as it grew over the next several decades: Marvin Minsky, Claude Shannon, Arthur Samuel, Ray Solomonoff, Oliver Selfridge, Allen Newell, and Herbert Simon. It would be difficult to argue that the technologies derived from AI research had a profound effect on our way of life by the beginning of the 21st century. However, AI technologies have been successfully applied in many industrial settings, medicine and health care, and video games. Programming techniques developed in AI research were incorporated into more widespread programming practices, such as high-level programming languages and time-sharing operating systems. While AI did not succeed in constructing a computer which displays the general mental capabilities of a typical human, such as the HAL computer in Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, it has produced programs that perform some apparently intelligent tasks, often at a much greater level of skill and reliability than humans. More than this, AI has provided a powerful and defining image of what computer technology might someday be capable of achieving.

3. Computer and Video Games

Interactive computer and video games were first developed in laboratories as the late-night amusements of computer programmers or independent projects of television engineers. Their formats include computer software; networked, multiplayer games on time-shared systems or servers; arcade consoles; home consoles connected to television sets; and handheld game machines. The first experimental projects grew out of early work in computer graphics, artificial intelligence, television technology, hardware and software interface development, computer-aided education, and microelectronics. Important examples were Willy Higinbotham’s oscilloscope-based ‘‘Tennis for Two’’ at the Brookhaven National Laboratory (1958); ‘‘Spacewar!,’’ by Steve Russell, Alan Kotok, J. Martin Graetz and others at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1962); Ralph Baer’s television-based tennis game for Sanders Associates (1966); several networked games from the PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations) Project at the University of Illinois during the early 1970s; and ‘‘Adventure,’’ by Will Crowther of Bolt, Beranek & Newman (1972), extended by Don Woods at Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (1976). The main lines of development during the 1970s and early 1980s were home video consoles, coin-operated arcade games, and computer software.

4. Computer Displays

The display is an essential part of any general-purpose computer. Its function is to act as an output device to communicate data to humans using the highest bandwidth input system that humans possess—the eyes. Much of the development of computer displays has been about trying to get closer to the limits of human visual perception in terms of color and spatial resolution. Mainframe and minicomputers used ‘‘terminals’’ to display the output. These were fed data from the host computer and processed the data to create screen images using a graphics processor. The display was typically integrated with a keyboard system and some communication hardware as a terminal or video display unit (VDU) following the basic model used for teletypes. Personal computers (PCs) in the late 1970s and early 1980s changed this model by integrating the graphics controller into the computer chassis itself. Early PC displays typically displayed only monochrome text and communicated in character codes such as ASCII. Line-scanning frequencies were typically from 15 to 20 kilohertz—similar to television. CRT displays rapidly developed after the introduction of video graphics array (VGA) technology (640 by 480 pixels in16 colors) in the mid-1980s and scan frequencies rose to 60 kilohertz or more for mainstream displays; 100 kilohertz or more for high-end displays. These displays were capable of displaying formats up to 2048 by 1536 pixels with high color depths. Because the human eye is very quick to respond to visual stimulation, developments in display technology have tended to track the development of semiconductor technology that allows the rapid manipulation of the stored image.

5. Computer Memory for Personal Computers

During the second half of the twentieth century, the two primary methods used for the long-term storage of digital information were magnetic and optical recording. These methods were selected primarily on the basis of cost. Compared to core or transistorized random-access memory (RAM), storage costs for magnetic and optical media were several orders of magnitude cheaper per bit of information and were not volatile; that is, the information did not vanish when electrical power was turned off. However, access to information stored on magnetic and optical recorders was much slower compared to RAM memory. As a result, computer designers used a mix of both types of memory to accomplish computational tasks. Designers of magnetic and optical storage systems have sought meanwhile to increase the speed of access to stored information to increase the overall performance of computer systems, since most digital information is stored magnetically or optically for reasons of cost.

6. Computer Modeling

Computer simulation models have transformed the natural, engineering, and social sciences, becoming crucial tools for disciplines as diverse as ecology, epidemiology, economics, urban planning, aerospace engineering, meteorology, and military operations. Computer models help researchers study systems of extreme complexity, predict the behavior of natural phenomena, and examine the effects of human interventions in natural processes. Engineers use models to design everything from jets and nuclear-waste repositories to diapers and golf clubs. Models enable astrophysicists to simulate supernovas, biochemists to replicate protein folding, geologists to predict volcanic eruptions, and physiologists to identify populations at risk of lead poisoning. Clearly, computer models provide a powerful means of solving problems, both theoretical and applied.

7. Computer Networks

Computers and computer networks have changed the way we do almost everything—the way we teach, learn, do research, access or share information, communicate with each other, and even the way we entertain ourselves. A computer network, in simple terms, consists of two or more computing devices (often called nodes) interconnected by means of some medium capable of transmitting data that allows the computers to communicate with each other in order to provide a variety of services to users.

8. Computer Science

Computer science occupies a unique position among the scientific and technical disciplines. It revolves around a specific artifact—the electronic digital computer—that touches upon a broad and diverse set of fields in its design, operation, and application. As a result, computer science represents a synthesis and extension of many different areas of mathematics, science, engineering, and business.

9. Computer-Aided Control Technology

The story of computer-aided control technology is inextricably entwined with the modern history of automation. Automation in the first half of the twentieth century involved (often analog) processes for continuous automatic measurement and control of hardware by hydraulic, mechanical, or electromechanical means. These processes facilitated the development and refinement of battlefield fire-control systems, feedback amplifiers for use in telephony, electrical grid simulators, numerically controlled milling machines, and dozens of other innovations.

10. Computer-Aided Design and Manufacture

Computer-aided design and manufacture, known by the acronym CAD/CAM, is a process for manufacturing mechanical components, wherein computers are used to link the information needed in and produced by the design process to the information needed to control the machine tools that produce the parts. However, CAD/CAM actually constitutes two separate technologies that developed along similar, but unrelated, lines until they were combined in the 1970s.

11. Computer-User Interface

A computer interface is the point of contact between a person and an electronic computer. Today’s interfaces include a keyboard, mouse, and display screen. Computer user interfaces developed through three distinct stages, which can be identified as batch processing, interactive computing, and the graphical user interface (GUI). Today’s graphical interfaces support additional multimedia features, such as streaming audio and video. In GUI design, every new software feature introduces more icons into the process of computer– user interaction. Presently, the large vocabulary of icons used in GUI design is difficult for users to remember, which creates a complexity problem. As GUIs become more complex, interface designers are adding voice recognition and intelligent agent technologies to make computer user interfaces even easier to operate.

12. Early Computer Memory

Mechanisms to store information were present in early mechanical calculating machines, going back to Charles Babbage’s analytical engine proposed in the 1830s. It introduced the concept of the ‘‘store’’ and, if ever built, would have held 1000 numbers of up to 50 decimal digits. However, the move toward base-2 or binary computing in the 1930s brought about a new paradigm in technology—the digital computer, whose most elementary component was an on–off switch. Information on a digital system is represented using a combination of on and off signals, stored as binary digits (shortened to bits): zeros and ones. Text characters, symbols, or numerical values can all be coded as bits, so that information stored in digital memory is just zeros and ones, regardless of the storage medium. The history of computer memory is closely linked to the history of computers but a distinction should be made between primary (or main) and secondary memory. Computers only need operate on one segment of data at a time, and with memory being a scarce resource, the rest of the data set could be stored in less expensive and more abundant secondary memory.

13. Early Digital Computers

Digital computers were a marked departure from the electrical and mechanical calculating and computing machines in wide use from the early twentieth century. The innovation was of information being represented using only two states (on or off), which came to be known as ‘‘digital.’’ Binary (base 2) arithmetic and logic provided the tools for these machines to perform useful functions. George Boole’s binary system of algebra allowed any mathematical equation to be represented by simply true or false logic statements. By using only two states, engineering was also greatly simplified, and universality and accuracy increased. Further developments from the early purpose-built machines, to ones that were programmable accompanied by many key technological developments, resulted in the well-known success and proliferation of the digital computer.

14. Electronic Control Technology

The advancement of electrical engineering in the twentieth century made a fundamental change in control technology. New electronic devices including vacuum tubes (valves) and transistors were used to replace electromechanical elements in conventional controllers and to develop new types of controllers. In these practices, engineers discovered basic principles of control theory that could be further applied to design electronic control systems.

15. Encryption and Code Breaking

The word cryptography comes from the Greek words for ‘‘hidden’’ (kryptos) and ‘‘to write’’ (graphein)—literally, the science of ‘‘hidden writing.’’ In the twentieth century, cryptography became fundamental to information technology (IT) security generally. Before the invention of the digital computer at mid-century, national governments across the world relied on mechanical and electromechanical cryptanalytic devices to protect their own national secrets and communications, as well as to expose enemy secrets. Code breaking played an important role in both World Wars I and II, and the successful exploits of Polish and British cryptographers and signals intelligence experts in breaking the code of the German Enigma ciphering machine (which had a range of possible transformations between a message and its code of approximately 150 trillion (or 150 million million million) are well documented.

16. Error Checking and Correction

In telecommunications, whether transmission of data or voice signals is over copper, fiber-optic, or wireless links, information coded in the signal transmitted must be decoded by the receiver from a background of noise. Signal errors can be introduced, for example from physical defects in the transmission medium (semiconductor crystal defects, dust or scratches on magnetic memory, bubbles in optical fibers), from electromagnetic interference (natural or manmade) or cosmic rays, or from cross-talk (unwanted coupling) between channels. In digital signal transmission, data is transmitted as ‘‘bits’’ (ones or zeros, corresponding to on or off in electronic circuits). Random bit errors occur singly and in no relation to each other. Burst error is a large, sustained error or loss of data, perhaps caused by transmission problems in the connecting cables, or sudden noise. Analog to digital conversion can also introduce sampling errors.

17. Global Positioning System (GPS)

The NAVSTAR (NAVigation System Timing And Ranging) Global Positioning System (GPS) provides an unlimited number of military and civilian users worldwide with continuous, highly accurate data on their position in four dimensions— latitude, longitude, altitude, and time— through all weather conditions. It includes space, control, and user segments (Figure 6). A constellation of 24 satellites in 10,900 nautical miles, nearly circular orbits—six orbital planes, equally spaced 60 degrees apart, inclined approximately 55 degrees relative to the equator, and each with four equidistant satellites—transmits microwave signals in two different L-band frequencies. From any point on earth, between five and eight satellites are ‘‘visible’’ to the user. Synchronized, extremely precise atomic clocks—rubidium and cesium— aboard the satellites render the constellation semiautonomous by alleviating the need to continuously control the satellites from the ground. The control segment consists of a master facility at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, and a global network of automated stations. It passively tracks the entire constellation and, via an S-band uplink, periodically sends updated orbital and clock data to each satellite to ensure that navigation signals received by users remain accurate. Finally, GPS users—on land, at sea, in the air or space—rely on commercially produced receivers to convert satellite signals into position, time, and velocity estimates.

18. Gyrocompass and Inertial Guidance

Before the twentieth century, navigation at sea employed two complementary methods, astronomical and dead reckoning. The former involved direct measurements of celestial phenomena to ascertain position, while the latter required continuous monitoring of a ship’s course, speed, and distance run. New navigational technology was required not only for iron ships in which traditional compasses required correction, but for aircraft and submarines in which magnetic compasses cannot be used. Owing to their rapid motion, aircraft presented challenges for near instantaneous navigation data collection and reduction. Electronics furnished the exploitation of radio and the adaptation of a gyroscope to direction finding through the invention of the nonmagnetic gyrocompass.

Although the Cold War arms race after World War II led to the development of inertial navigation, German manufacture of the V-2 rocket under the direction of Wernher von Braun during the war involved a proto-inertial system, a two-gimballed gyro with an integrator to determine speed. Inertial guidance combines a gyrocompass with accelerometers installed along orthogonal axes, devices that record all accelerations of the vehicle in which inertial guidance has been installed. With this system, if the initial position of the vehicle is known, then the vehicle’s position at any moment is known because integrators record all directions and accelerations and calculate speeds and distance run. Inertial guidance devices can subtract accelerations due to gravity or other motions of the vehicle. Because inertial guidance does not depend on an outside reference, it is the ultimate dead reckoning system, ideal for the nuclear submarines for which they were invented and for ballistic missiles. Their self-contained nature makes them resistant to electronic countermeasures. Inertial systems were first installed in commercial aircraft during the 1960s. The expense of manufacturing inertial guidance mechanisms (and their necessary management by computer) has limited their application largely to military and some commercial purposes. Inertial systems accumulate errors, so their use at sea (except for submarines) has been as an adjunct to other navigational methods, unlike aircraft applications. Only the development of the global positioning system (GPS) at the end of the century promised to render all previous navigational technologies obsolete. Nevertheless, a range of technologies, some dating to the beginning of the century, remain in use in a variety of commercial and leisure applications.

19. Hybrid Computers

Following the emergence of the analog–digital demarcation in the late 1940s—and the ensuing battle between a speedy analog versus the accurate digital—the term ‘‘hybrid computer’’ surfaced in the early 1960s. The assumptions held by the adherents of the digital computer—regarding the dynamic mechanization of computational labor to accompany the equally dynamic increase in computational work—was becoming a universal ideology. From this perspective, the digital computer justly appeared to be technically superior. In introducing the digital computer to social realities, however, extensive interaction with the experienced analog computer adherents proved indispensable, especially given that the digital proponents’ expectation of progress by employing the available and inexpensive hardware was stymied by the lack of inexpensive software. From this perspective—as historiographically unwanted it may be by those who agree with the essentialist conception of the analog–digital demarcation—the history of the hybrid computer suggests that the computer as we now know it was brought about by linking the analog and the digital, not by separating them. Placing the ideal analog and the ideal digital at the two poles, all computing techniques that combined some features of both fell beneath ‘‘hybrid computation’’; the designators ‘‘balanced’’ or ‘‘true’’ were preserved for those built with appreciable amounts of both. True hybrids fell into the middle spectrum that included: pure analog computers, analog computers using digital-type numerical analysis techniques, analog computers programmed with the aid of digital computers, analog computers using digital control and logic, analog computers using digital subunits, analog computers using digital computers as peripheral equipment, balanced hybrid computer systems, digital computers using analog subroutines, digital computers with analog arithmetic elements, digital computers designed to permit analog-type programming, digital computers with analog-oriented compilers and interpreters, and pure digital computers.

20. Information Theory

Information theory, also known originally as the mathematical theory of communication, was first explicitly formulated during the mid-twentieth century. Almost immediately it became a foundation; first, for the more systematic design and utilization of numerous telecommunication and information technologies; and second, for resolving a paradox in thermodynamics. Finally, information theory has contributed to new interpretations of a wide range of biological and cultural phenomena, from organic physiology and genetics to cognitive behavior, human language, economics, and political decision making. Reflecting the symbiosis between theory and practice typical of twentieth century technology, technical issues in early telegraphy and telephony gave rise to a proto-information theory developed by Harry Nyquist at Bell Labs in 1924 and Ralph Hartley, also at Bell Labs, in 1928. This theory in turn contributed to advances in telecommunications, which stimulated the development of information theory per se by Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver, in their book The Mathematical Theory of Communication published in 1949. As articulated by Claude Shannon, a Bell Labs researcher, the technical concept of information is defined by the probability of a specific message or signal being picked out from a number of possibilities and transmitted from A to B. Information in this sense is mathematically quantifiable. The amount of information, I, conveyed by signal, S, is inversely related to its probability, P. That is, the more improbable a message, the more information it contains. To facilitate the mathematical analysis of messages, the measure is conveniently defined as I ¼ log2 1/P(S), and is named a binary digit or ‘‘bit’’ for short. Thus in the simplest case of a two-state signal (1 or 0, corresponding to on or off in electronic circuits), with equal probability for each state, the transmission of either state as the code for a message would convey one bit of information. The theory of information opened up by this conceptual analysis has become the basis for constructing and analyzing digital computational devices and a whole range of information technologies (i.e., technologies including telecommunications and data processing), from telephones to computer networks.

21. Internet

The Internet is a global computer network of networks whose origins are found in U.S. military efforts. In response to Sputnik and the emerging space race, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) was formed in 1958 as an agency of the Pentagon. The researchers at ARPA were given a generous mandate to develop innovative technologies such as communications.

In 1962, psychologist J.C.R. Licklider from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory joined ARPA to take charge of the Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO). In 1963 Licklider wrote a memo proposing an interactive network allowing people to communicate via computer. This project did not materialize. In 1966, Bob Taylor, then head of the IPTO, noted that he needed three different computer terminals to connect to three different machines in different locations around the nation. Taylor also recognized that universities working with IPTO needed more computing resources. Instead of the government buying machines for each university, why not share machines? Taylor revitalized Licklider’s idea, securing $1 million in funding, and hired 29-yearold Larry Roberts to direct the creation of ARPAnet.

In 1974, Robert Kahn and Vincent Cerf proposed the first internet-working protocol, a way for datagrams (packets) to be communicated between disparate networks, and they called it an ‘‘internet.’’ Their efforts created transmission control protocol/internet protocol (TCP/IP). In 1982, TCP/IP replaced NCP on ARPAnet. Other networks adopted TCP/IP and it became the dominant standard for all networking by the late 1990s.

In 1981 the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) created Computer Science Network (CSNET) to provide universities that did not have access to ARPAnet with their own network. In 1986, the NSF sponsored the NSFNET ‘‘backbone’’ to connect five supercomputing centers. The backbone also connected ARPAnet and CSNET together, and the idea of a network of networks became firmly entrenched. The open technical architecture of the Internet allowed numerous innovations to be grafted easily onto the whole. When ARPAnet was dismantled in 1990, the Internet was thriving at universities and technology- oriented companies. The NSF backbone was dismantled in 1995 when the NSF realized that commercial entities could keep the Internet running and growing on their own, without government subsidy. Commercial network providers worked through the Commercial Internet Exchange to manage network traffic.

22. Mainframe Computers

The term ‘‘computer’’ currently refers to a general-purpose, digital, electronic, stored-program calculating machine. The term ‘‘mainframe’’ refers to a large, expensive, multiuser computer, able to handle a wide range of applications. The term was derived from the main frame or cabinet in which the central processing unit (CPU) and main memory of a computer were kept separate from those cabinets that held peripheral devices used for input and output.

Computers are generally classified as supercomputers, mainframes, minicomputers, or microcomputers. This classification is based on factors such as processing capability, cost, and applications, with supercomputers the fastest and most expensive. All computers were called mainframes until the 1960s, including the first supercomputer, the naval ordnance research calculator (NORC), offered by International Business Machines (IBM) in 1954. In 1960, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) shipped the PDP-1, a computer that was much smaller and cheaper than a mainframe.

Mainframes once each filled a large room, cost millions of dollars, and needed a full maintenance staff, partly in order to repair the damage caused by the heat generated by their vacuum tubes. These machines were characterized by proprietary operating systems and connections through dumb terminals that had no local processing capabilities. As personal computers developed and began to approach mainframes in speed and processing power, however, mainframes have evolved to support a client/server relationship, and to interconnect with open standard-based systems. They have become particularly useful for systems that require reliability, security, and centralized control. Their ability to process large amounts of data quickly make them particularly valuable for storage area networks (SANs). Mainframes today contain multiple CPUs, providing additional speed through multiprocessing operations. They support many hundreds of simultaneously executing programs, as well as numerous input and output processors for multiplexing devices, such as video display terminals and disk drives. Many legacy systems, large applications that have been developed, tested, and used over time, are still running on mainframes.

23. Mineral Prospecting

Twentieth century mineral prospecting draws upon the accumulated knowledge of previous exploration and mining activities, advancing technology, expanding knowledge of geologic processes and deposit models, and mining and processing capabilities to determine where and how to look for minerals of interest. Geologic models have been developed for a wide variety of deposit types; the prospector compares geologic characteristics of potential exploration areas with those of deposit models to determine which areas have similar characteristics and are suitable prospecting locations. Mineral prospecting programs are often team efforts, integrating general and site-specific knowledge of geochemistry, geology, geophysics, and remote sensing to ‘‘discover’’ hidden mineral deposits and ‘‘measure’’ their economic potential with increasing accuracy and reduced environmental disturbance. Once a likely target zone has been identified, multiple exploration tools are used in a coordinated program to characterize the deposit and its economic potential.

24. Packet Switching

Historically the first communications networks were telegraphic—the electrical telegraph replacing the mechanical semaphore stations in the mid-nineteenth century. Telegraph networks were largely eclipsed by the advent of the voice (telephone) network, which first appeared in the late nineteenth century, and provided the immediacy of voice conversation. The Public Switched Telephone Network allows a subscriber to dial a connection to another subscriber, with the connection being a series of telephone lines connected together through switches at the telephone exchanges along the route. This technique is known as circuit switching, as a circuit is set up between the subscribers, and is held until the call is cleared.

One of the disadvantages of circuit switching is the fact that the capacity of the link is often significantly underused due to silences in the conversation, but the spare capacity cannot be shared with other traffic. Another disadvantage is the time it takes to establish the connection before the conversation can begin. One could liken this to sending a railway engine from London to Edinburgh to set the points before returning to pick up the carriages. What is required is a compromise between the immediacy of conversation on an established circuit-switched connection, with the ad hoc delivery of a store-and-forward message system. This is what packet switching is designed to provide.

25. Personal Computers

A personal computer, or PC, is designed for personal use. Its central processing unit (CPU) runs single-user systems and application software, processes input from the user, sending output to a variety of peripheral devices. Programs and data are stored in memory and attached storage devices. Personal computers are generally single-user desktop machines, but the term has been applied to any computer that ‘‘stands alone’’ for a single user, including portable computers.

The technology that enabled the construction of personal computers was the microprocessor, a programmable integrated circuit (or ‘‘chip’’) that acts as the CPU. Intel introduced the first microprocessor in 1971, the 4-bit 4004, which it called a ‘‘microprogrammable computer on a chip.’’ The 4004 was originally developed as a general-purpose chip for a programmable calculator, but Intel introduced it as part of Intel’s Microcomputer System 4-bit, or MCS-4, which also included read-only memory (ROM) and random-access memory (RAM) memory chips and a shift register chip. In August 1972, Intel followed with the 8-bit 8008, then the more powerful 8080 in June 1974. Following Intel’s lead, computers based on the 8080 were usually called microcomputers.

The success of the minicomputer during the 1960s prepared computer engineers and users for ‘‘single person, single CPU’’ computers. Digital Equipment Corporation’s (DEC) widely used PDP-10, for example, was smaller, cheaper, and more accessible than large mainframe computers. Timeshared computers operating under operating systems such as TOPS-10 on the PDP-10— co-developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and DEC in 1972—created the illusion of individual control of computing power by providing rapid access to personal programs and files. By the early 1970s, the accessibility of minicomputers, advances in microelectronics, and component miniaturization created expectations of affordable personal computers.

26. Printers

Printers generally can be categorized as either impact or nonimpact. Like typewriters, impact printers generate output by striking the page with a solid substance. Impact printers include daisy wheel and dot matrix printers. The daisy wheel printer, which was introduced in 1972 by Diablo Systems, operates by spinning the daisy wheel to the correct character whereupon a hammer strikes it, forcing the character through an inked ribbon and onto the paper. Dot matrix printers operate by using a series of small pins to strike a matrix or grid ribbon coated with ink. The strike of the pin forces the ink to transfer to the paper at the point of impact. Unlike daisy wheel printers, dot matrix printers can generate italic and other character types through producing different pin patterns. Nonimpact printers generate images by spraying or fusing ink to paper or other output media. This category includes inkjet printers, laser printers, and thermal printers. Whether they are inkjet or laser, impact or nonimpact, all modern printers incorporate features of dot matrix technology in their design: they operate by generating dots onto paper or other physical media.

27. Processors for Computers

A processor is the part of the computer system that manipulates the data. The first computer processors of the late 1940s and early 1950s performed three main functions and had three main components. They worked in a cycle to gather, decode, and execute instructions. They were made up of the arithmetic and logic unit, the control unit, and some extra storage components or registers. Today, most processors contain these components and perform these same functions, but since the 1960s they have developed different forms, capabilities, and organization. As with computers in general, increasing speed and decreasing size has marked their development.

28. Radionavigation

Astronomical and dead-reckoning techniques furnished the methods of navigating ships until the twentieth century, when exploitation of radio waves, coupled with electronics, met the needs of aircraft with their fast speeds, but also transformed all navigational techniques. The application of radio to dead reckoning has allowed vessels to determine their positions in all-weather by direction finding (known as radio direction finding, or RDF) or by hyperbolic systems. Another use of radio, radar (radio direction and rangefinding), enables vessels to determine their distance to, or their bearing from, objects of known position. Radionavigation complements traditional navigational methods by employing three frames of reference. First, radio enables a vessel to navigate by lines of bearing to shore transmitters (the most common use of radio). This is directly analogous to the use of lighthouses for bearings. Second, shore stations may take radio bearings of craft and relay to them computed positions. Third, radio beacons provide aircraft or ships with signals that function as true compasses.

29. Software Application Programs

At the beginning of the computer age around the late 1940s, inventors of the intelligent machine were not thinking about applications software, or any software other than that needed to run the bare machine to do mathematical calculating. It was only when Maurice Wilkes’ young protégé David Williams crafted a tidy set of initial orders for the EDSAC, an early programmable digital computer, that users could string together standard subroutines to a program and have the execution jump between them. This was the beginning of software as we know it—something that runs on a machine other than an operating system to make it do anything desired. ‘‘Applications’’ are software other than system programs that run the actual hardware. Manufacturers always had this software, and as the 1950s progressed they would ‘‘bundle’’ applications with hardware to make expensive computers more attractive. Some programming departments were even placed in the marketing departments.

30. Software Engineering

Software engineering aims to develop the programs that allow digital computers to do useful work in a systematic, disciplined manner that produces high-quality software on time and on budget. As computers have spread throughout industrialized societies, software has become a multibillion dollar industry. Both the users and developers of software depend a great deal on the effectiveness of the development process.

Software is a concept that didn’t even pertain to the first electronic digital computers. They were ‘‘programmed’’ through switches and patch cables that physically altered the electrical pathways of the machine. It was not until the Manchester Mark I, the first operational stored-program electronic digital computer, was developed in 1948 at the University of Manchester in England that configuring the machine to solve a specific problem became a matter of software rather than hardware. Subsequently, instructions were stored in memory along with data.

31. Supercomputers

Supercomputers are high-performance computing devices that are generally used for numerical calculation, for the study of physical systems either through numerical simulation or the processing of scientific data. Initially, they were large, expensive, mainframe computers, which were usually owned by government research labs. By the end of the twentieth century, they were more often networks of inexpensive small computers. The common element of all of these machines was their ability to perform high-speed floating-point arithmetic— binary arithmetic that approximates decimal numbers with a fixed number of bits—the basis of numerical computation.

With the advent of inexpensive supercomputers, these machines moved beyond the large government labs and into smaller research and engineering facilities. Some were used for the study of social science. A few were employed by business concerns, such as stock brokerages or graphic designers.

32. Systems Programs

The operating systems used in all computers today are a result of the development and organization of early systems programs designed to control and regulate the operations of computer hardware. The early computing machines such as the ENIAC of 1945 were ‘‘programmed’’ manually with connecting cables and setting switches for each new calculation. With the advent of the stored program computer of the late 1940s (the Manchester Mark I, EDVAC, EDSAC (electronic delay storage automatic calculator), the first system programs such as assemblers and compilers were developed and installed. These programs performed oft repeated and basic operations for computer use including converting programs into machine code, storing and retrieving files, managing computer resources and peripherals, and aiding in the compilation of new programs. With the advent of programming languages, and the dissemination of more computers in research centers, universities, and businesses during the late 1950s and 1960s, a large group of users began developing programs, improving usability, and organizing system programs into operating systems.

The 1970s and 1980s saw a turn away from some of the complications of system software, an interweaving of features from different operating systems, and the development of systems programs for the personal computer. In the early 1970s, two programmers from Bell Laboratories, Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie, developed a smaller, simpler operating system called UNIX. Unlike past system software, UNIX was portable and could be run on different computer systems. Due in part to low licensing fees and simplicity of design, UNIX increased in popularity throughout the 1970s. At the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, research during the 1970s led to the development of system software for the Apple Macintosh computer that included a GUI (graphical user interface). This type of system software filtered the user’s interaction with the computer through the use of graphics or icons representing computer processes. In 1985, a year after the release of the Apple Macintosh computer, a GUI was overlaid on Microsoft’s then dominant operating system, MS-DOS, to produce Microsoft Windows. The Microsoft Windows series of operating systems became and remains the dominant operating system on personal computers.

33. World Wide Web

The World Wide Web (Web) is a ‘‘finite but unbounded’’ collection of media-rich digital resources that are connected through high-speed digital networks. It relies upon an Internet protocol suite that supports cross-platform transmission and makes available a wide variety of media types (i.e., multimedia). The cross-platform delivery environment represents an important departure from more traditional network communications protocols such as e-mail, telnet, and file transfer protocols (FTP) because it is content-centric. It is also to be distinguished from earlier document acquisition systems such as Gopher, which was designed in 1991, originally as a mainframe program but quickly implemented over networks, and wide area information systems (WAIS), also released in 1991. WAIS accommodated a narrower range of media formats and failed to include hyperlinks within their navigation protocols. Following the success of Gopher on the Internet, the Web quickly extended and enriched the metaphor of integrated browsing and navigation. This made it possible to navigate and peruse a wide variety of media types effortlessly on the Web, which in turn led to the Web’s hegemony as an Internet protocol.

History of Computer Technology

Computer TechnologyTowards the close of the last century the computer was claimed to be the most revolutionary artifact of twentieth century technology. It transformed business and industrial production, engineering and the sciences, as well as everyday life, and brought about a ‘‘computer revolution,’’ a ‘‘computer age,’’ an ‘‘information age,’’ and an ‘‘Internet age,’’ as many observers noted. It would therefore appear that the economy and the society of the industrial nations are more and more based on computer technology. Added to this is the ongoing debate over the risks and negative consequences of the increasing ubiquity of computer technology in our society; for example, the effects of computer technology on employment and data privacy protection, and the case of the risks of using software for the control of technological systems such as nuclear weapons systems. The overall picture shows that on the one hand, the computer seems to be a machine that has repeatedly stirred up illusions and visions in society since its invention (e.g., the vision of computers as intelligent machines), and on the other hand, people often fear the consequences of its uses.

The modern computer—the (electronic) digital computer in which the stored program concept is realized and hence self-modifying programs are possible—was only invented in the 1940s. Nevertheless, the history of computing (interpreted as the usage of modern computers) is only understandable against the background of the many forms of information processing as well as mechanical computing devices that solved mathematical problems in the first half of the twentieth century. The part these several predecessors played in the invention and early history of the computer may be interpreted from two different perspectives: on the one hand it can be argued that these machines prepared the way for the modern digital computer, on the other hand it can be argued that the computer, which was invented as a mathematical instrument, was reconstructed to be a data-processing machine, a control mechanism, and a communication tool.

The invention and early history of the digital computer has its roots in two different kinds of developments: first, information processing in business and government bureaucracies; and second, the use and the search for mathematical instruments and methods that could solve mathematical problems arising in the sciences and in engineering.

Origins in Mechanical Office Equipment

The development of information processing in business and government bureaucracies had its origins in the late nineteenth century, which was not just an era of industrialization and mass production but also a time of continuous growth in administrative work. The economic precondition for this development was the creation of a global economy, which caused growth in production of goods and trade. This brought with it an immense increase in correspondence, as well as monitoring and accounting activities—corporate bureaucracies began to collect and process data in increasing quantities. Almost at the same time, government organizations became more and more interested in collating data on population and demographic changes (e.g., expanding tax revenues, social security, and wide-ranging planning and monitoring functions) and analyzing this data statistically.

Bureaucracies in the U.S. and in Europe reacted in a different way to these changes. While in Europe for the most part neither office machines nor telephones entered offices until 1900, in the U.S. in the last quarter of the nineteenth century the information-handling techniques in bureaucracies were radically changed because of the introduction of mechanical devices for writing, copying, and counting data. The rise of big business in the U.S. had caused a growing demand for management control tools, which was fulfilled by a new ideology of systematic management together with the products of the rising office machines industry. Because of a later start in industrialization, the government and businesses in the U.S. were not forced to reorganize their bureaucracies when they introduced office machines. This, together with an ideological preference for modern office equipment, was the cause of a market for office machines and of a far-reaching mechanization of office work in the U.S. In the 1880s typewriters and cash registers became very widespread, followed by adding machines and book-keeping machines in the 1890s. From 1880 onward, the makers of office machines in the U.S. underwent a period of enormous growth, and in 1920 the office machine industry annually generated about $200 million in revenue. In Europe, by comparison, mechanization of office work emerged about two decades later than in the U.S.—both Germany and Britain adopted the American system of office organization and extensive use of office machines for the most part no earlier than the 1920s.

During the same period the rise of a new office machine technology began. Punched card systems, initially invented by Herman Hollerith to analyze the U.S. census in 1890, were introduced. By 1911 Hollerith’s company had only about 100 customers, but after it had been merged in the same year with two other companies to become the Computing- Tabulating-Recording Company (CTR), it began a tremendous ascent to become the world leader in the office machine industry. CTR’s general manager, Thomas J. Watson, understood the extraordinary potential of these punched-card accounting devices, which enabled their users to process enormous amounts of data largely automatically, in a rapid way and at an adequate level of cost and effort. Due to Watson’s insights and his extraordinary management abilities, the company (which had since been renamed to International Business Machines (IBM)) became the fourth largest office machine supplier in the world by 1928—topped only by Remington Rand, National Cash Register (NCR), and the Burroughs Adding Machine Company.

Origin of Calculating Devices and Analog Instruments

Compared with the fundamental changes in the world of corporate and government bureaucracies caused by office machinery during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, calculating machines and instruments seemed to have only a minor influence in the world of science and engineering. Scientists and engineers had always been confronted with mathematical problems and had over the centuries developed techniques such as mathematical tables. However, many new mathematical instruments emerged in the nineteenth century and increasingly began to change the world of science and engineering. Apart from the slide rule, which came into popular use in Europe from the early nineteenth century onwards (and became the symbol of the engineer for decades), calculating machines and instruments were only produced on a large scale in the middle of the nineteenth century.

In the 1850s the production of calculating machines as well as that of planimeters (used to measure the area of closed curves, a typical problem in land surveying) started on different scales. Worldwide, less than 2,000 calculating machines were produced before 1880, but more than 10,000 planimeters were produced by the early 1880s. Also, various types of specialized mathematical analog instruments were produced on a very small scale in the late nineteenth century; among them were integraphs for the graphical solution of special types of differential equations, harmonic analyzers for the determination of Fourier coefficients of a periodic function, and tide predictors that could calculate the time and height of the ebb and flood tides.

Nonetheless, in 1900 only geodesists and astronomers (as well as part of the engineering community) made extensive use of mathematical instruments. In addition, the establishment of applied mathematics as a new discipline took place at German universities on a small scale and the use of apparatus and machines as well as graphical and numerical methods began to flourish during this time. After World War I, the development of engineering sciences and of technical physics gave a tremendous boost to applied mathematics in Germany and Britain. In general, scientists and engineers became more aware of the capabilities of calculating machines and a change of the calculating culture—from the use of tables to the use of calculating machines—took place.

One particular problem that was increasingly encountered by mechanical and electrical engineers in the 1920s was the solution of several types of differential equations, which were not solvable by analytic solutions. As one important result of this development, a new type of analog instrument— the so called ‘‘differential analyzer’’—was invented in 1931 by the engineer Vannevar Bush at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In contrast to its predecessors—several types of integraphs—this machine (which was later called an analog computer) could be used not only to solve a special class of differential equation, but a more general class of differential equations associated with engineering problems. Before the digital computer was invented in the 1940s there was an intensive use of analog instruments (similar to Bush’s differential analyzer) and a number of machines were constructed in the U.S. and in Europe after the model of Bush’s machine before and during World War II. Analog instruments also became increasingly important in several fields such as the firing control of artillery on warships or the control of rockets. It is worth mentioning here that only for a limited class of scientific and engineering problems was it possible to construct an analog computer— weather forecasting and the problem of shock waves produced by an atomic bomb, for example, required the solution of partial differential equations, for which a digital computer was needed.

The Invention of the Computer

The invention of the electronic digital stored-program computer is directly connected with the development of numerical calculation tools for the solution of mathematical problems in the sciences and in engineering. The ideas that led to the invention of the computer were developed simultaneously by scientists and engineers in Germany, Britain, and the U.S. in the 1930s and 1940s. The first freely programmable program-controlled automatic calculator was developed by the civil engineering student Konrad Zuse in Germany. Zuse started development work on program-controlled computing machines in the 1930s, when he had to deal with extensive calculations in static, and in 1941 his Z3, which was based on electromechanical relay technology, became operational.

Several similar developments in the U.S. were in progress at the same time. In 1937 Howard Aiken, a physics student at Harvard University, approached IBM to build a program-controlled calculator— later called the ‘‘Harvard Mark I.’’ On the basis of a concept Aiken had developed because of his experiences with the numerical solution of partial differential equations, the machine was built and became operational in 1944. At almost the same time a series of important relay computers was built at the Bell Laboratories in New York following a suggestion by George R. Stibitz. All these developments in the U.S. were spurred by the outbreak of World War II. The first large-scale programmable electronic computer called the Colossus was built in complete secrecy in 1943 to 1944 at Bletchley Park in Britain in order to help break the German Enigma machine ciphers.

However, it was neither these relay calculators nor the Colossus that were decisive for the development of the universal computer, but the ENIAC (electronic numerical integrator and computer), which was developed at the Moore School of Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. Extensive ballistic calculations were carried out there for the U.S. Army during World War II with the aid of the Bush ‘‘differential analyzer’’ and more than a hundred women (‘‘computors’’) working on mechanical desk calculators. Observing that capacity was barely sufficient to compute the artillery firing tables, the physicist John W. Mauchly and the electronic engineer John Presper Eckert started developing the ENIAC, a digital version of the differential analyzer, in 1943 with funding from the U.S. Army.

In 1944 the mathematician John von Neumann turned his attention to the ENIAC because of his mathematical work on the Manhattan Project (on the implosion of the hydrogen bomb). While the ENIAC was being built, Neumann and the ENIAC team drew up plans for a successor to the ENIAC in order to improve the shortcomings of the ENIAC concept, such as the very small memory and the time-consuming reprogramming (actually rewiring) required to change the setup for a new calculation. In these meetings the idea of a stored-program, universal machine evolved. Memory was to be used to store the program in addition to data. This would enable the machine to execute conditional branches and change the flow of the program. The concept of a computer in the modern sense of the word was born and in 1945 von Neumann wrote the important ‘‘First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC,’’ which described the stored-program, universal computer. The logical structure that was presented in this draft report is now referred to as the ‘‘von Neumann architecture.’’ This EDVAC report was originally intended for internal use but once made freely available it became the ‘‘bible’’ for computer pioneers throughout the world in the 1940s and 1950s. The first computer featuring the von Neumann architecture operated at Cambridge University in the U.K.; in June 1949 the EDSAC (electronic delay storage automatic computer) computer built by Maurice Wilkes—designed according to the EDVAC principles—became operational.

The Computer as a Scientific Instrument

As soon as the computer was invented, a growing demand for computers by scientists and engineers evolved, and numerous American and European universities started their own computer projects in the 1940s and 1950s. After the technical difficulties of building an electronic computer were solved, scientists grasped the opportunity to use the new scientific instrument for their research. For example, at the University of Gottingen in Germany, the early computers were used for the initial value problems of partial differential equations associated with hydrodynamic problems from atomic physics and aerodynamics. Another striking example was the application of von Neumann’s computer at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton to numerical weather forecasts in 1950. As a result, numerical weather forecasts could be made on a regular basis from the mid-1950s onwards.

Mathematical methods have always been of a certain importance for science and engineering sciences, but only the use of the electronic digital computer (as an enabling technology) made it possible to broaden the application of mathematical methods to such a degree that research in science, medicine, and engineering without computer- based mathematical methods has become virtually inconceivable at the end of the twentieth century. A number of additional computer-based techniques, such as scientific visualization, medical imaging, computerized tomography, pattern recognition, image processing, and statistical applications, have become of the utmost significance for science, medicine, engineering, and social sciences. In addition, the computer changed the way engineers construct technical artifacts fundamentally because of the use of computer-based methods such as computer-aided design (CAD), computer-aided manufacture (CAM), computer-aided engineering, control applications, and finite-element methods. However, the most striking example seems to be the development of scientific computing and computer modeling, which became accepted as a third mode of scientific research that complements experimentation and theoretical analysis. Scientific computing and computer modeling are based on supercomputers as the enabling technology, which became important tools for modern science routinely used to simulate physical and chemical phenomena. These high-speed computers became equated with the machines developed by Seymour Cray, who built the fastest computers in the world for many years. The supercomputers he launched such as the legendary CRAY I from 1976 were the basis for computer modeling of real world systems, and helped, for example, the defense industry in the U.S. to build weapons systems and the oil industry to create geological models that show potential oil deposits.

Growth of Digital Computers in Business and Information Processing

When the digital computer was invented as a mathematical instrument in the 1940s, it could not have been foreseen that this new artifact would ever be of a certain importance in the business world. About 50 firms entered the computer business worldwide in the late 1940s and the early 1950s, and the computer was reconstructed to be a type of electronic data-processing machine that took the place of punched-card technology as well as other office machine technology. It is interesting to consider that there were mainly three types of companies building computers in the 1950s and 1960s: newly created computer firms (such as the company founded by the ENIAC inventors Eckert and Mauchly), electronics and control equipments firms (such as RCA and General Electric), and office appliance companies (such as Burroughs and NCR). Despite the fact that the first digital computers were put on the market by a German and a British company, U.S. firms dominated the world market from the 1950s onward, as these firms had the biggest market as well as financial support from the government.

Generally speaking, the Cold War exerted an enormous influence on the development of computer technology. Until the early 1960s the U.S. military and the defense industry were the central drivers of the digital computer expansion, serving as the main market for computer technology and shaping and speeding up the formation of the rising computer industry. Because of the U.S. military’s role as the ‘‘tester’’ for prototype hard- and software, it had a direct and lasting influence on technological developments; in addition, it has to be noted that the spread of computer technology was partly hindered by military secrecy. Even after the emergence of a large civilian computer market in the 1960s, the U.S. military maintained its influence by investing a great deal in computer in hard- and software and in computer research projects.

From the middle of the 1950s onwards the world computer market was dominated by IBM, which accounted for more than 70 percent of the computer industry revenues until the mid-1970s. The reasons for IBM’s overwhelming success were diverse, but the company had a unique combination of technical and organizational capabilities at its disposal that prepared it perfectly for the mainframe computer market. In addition, IBM benefited from enormous government contracts, which helped to develop excellence in computer technology and design. However, the greatest advantage of IBM was by no doubt its marketing organization and its reputation as a service-oriented firm, which was used to working closely with customers to adapt machinery to address specific problems, and this key difference between IBM and its competitors persisted right into the computer age.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the computer market—consisting of IBM and seven other companies called the ‘‘seven dwarves’’—was dominated by IBM, with its 650 and 1401 computers. By 1960 the market for computers was still small. Only about 7,000 computers had been delivered by the computer industry, and at this time even IBM was primarily a punched-card machine supplier, which was still the major source of its income. Only in 1960 did a boom in demand for computers start, and by 1970 the number of computers installed worldwide had increased to more than 100,000. The computer industry was on the track to become one of the world’s major industries, and was totally dominated by IBM.

The outstanding computer system of this period was IBM’s System/360. It was announced in 1964 as a compatible family of the same computer architecture, and employed interchangeable peripheral devices in order to solve IBM’s problems with a hotchpotch of incompatible product lines (which had evoked large problems in the development and maintenance of a great deal of different hardware and software products). Despite the fact that neither the technology used nor the systems programming were of a high-tech technology at the time, the System/360 established a new standard for mainframe computers for decades. Various computer firms in the U.S., Europe, Japan and even Russia, concentrated on copying components, peripherals for System/360 or tried to build System/360-compatible computers.

The growth of the computer market during the 1960s was accompanied by market shakeouts: two of the ‘‘seven dwarves’’ left the computer business after the first computer recession in the early 1970s, and afterwards the computer market was controlled by IBM and BUNCH (Burroughs, UNIVAC, NCR, Control Data, and Honeywell). At the same time, an internationalization of the computer market took place—U.S. companies controlled the world market for computers— which caused considerable fears over loss of national independence in European and Japanese national governments, and these subsequently stirred up national computing programs. While the European attempts to create national champions as well as the more general attempt to create a European-wide market for mainframe computers failed in the end, Japan’s attempt to found a national computer industry has been successful: Until today Japan is the only nation able to compete with the U.S. in a wide array of high-tech computer-related products.

Real-Time and Time-Sharing

Until the 1960s almost all computers in government and business were running batch-processing applications (i.e., the computers were only used in the same way as the punched-card accounting machines they had replaced). In the early 1950s, however, the computer industry introduced a new mode of computing named ‘‘real-time’’ in the business sector for the first time, which was originally developed for military purposes in MIT’s Whirlwind project. This project was initially started in World War II with the aim of designing an aircraft simulator by analog methods, and later became a part of a research and development program for the gigantic, computerized anti-aircraft defense system SAGE (semi-automatic ground environment) built up by IBM in the 1950s.

The demand for this new mode of computing was created by cultural and structural changes in economy. The increasing number of financial transactions in banks and insurance companies as well as increasing airline traveling activities made necessary new computer-based information systems that led finally to new forms of business evolution through information technology.

The case of the first computerized airline reservation system SABRE, developed for American Airlines by IBM in the 1950s and finally implemented in the early 1960s, serves to thoroughly illustrate these structural and structural changes in economy. Until the early 1950s, airline reservations had been made manually without any problems, but by 1953 this system was in crisis because increased air traffic and growing flight plan complexity had made reservation costs insupportable. SABRE became a complete success, demonstrating the potential of centralized real-time computing systems connected via a network. The system enabled flight agents throughout the U.S., who were equipped with desktop terminals, to gain a direct, real-time access to the central reservation system based on central IBM mainframe computers, while the airline was able to assign appropriate resources in response. Therefore, an effective combination of advantages was offered by SABRE—a better utilization of resources and a much higher customer convenience.

Very soon this new mode of computing spread around the business and government world and became commonplace throughout the service and distribution sectors of the economy; for example, bank tellers and insurance account representatives increasingly worked at terminals. On the one hand structural information problems led managers to go this way, and on the other hand the increasing use of computers as information handling machines in government and business had brought about the idea of computer-based accessible data retrieval. In the end, more and more IBM customers wanted to link dozens of operators directly to central computers by using terminal keyboards and display screens.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s—at the same time that IBM and American Airlines had begun the development of the SABRE airline reservation system—a group of brilliant computer scientists had a new idea for computer usage named ‘‘time sharing.’’ Instead of dedicating a multi-terminal system solely to a single application, they had the computer utility vision of organizing a mainframe computer so that several users could interact with it simultaneously. This vision was to change the nature of computing profoundly, because computing was no longer provided to naive users by programmers and systems analysts, and by the late 1960s time-sharing computers became widespread in the U.S.

Particularly important for this development had been the work of J.C.R. Licklider of the Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA) of the U.S. Department of Defense. In 1960 Licklider had published a now-classic paper ‘‘Man–Computer Symbiosis’’ proposing the use of computers to augment human intellect and creating the vision of interactive computing. Licklider was very successful in translating his idea of a network allowing people on different computers to communicate into action, and convinced ARPA to start an enormous research program in 1962. Its budget surpassed that of all other sources of U.S. public research funding for computers combined. The ARPA research programs resulted in a series of fundamental moves forward in computer technology in areas such as computer graphics, artificial intelligence, and operating systems. For example, even the most influential current operating system, the general-purpose time-sharing system Unix, developed in the early 1970s at the Bell Laboratories, was a spin-off of an ambitious operating system project, Multics, funded by ARPA. The designers of Unix successfully attempted to keep away from complexity by using a clear, minimalist design approach to software design, and created a multitasking, multiuser operating system, which became the standard operating system in the 1980s.

Electronic Component Revolution

While the nature of business computing was changed by the new paradigms such as real time and time sharing, advances in solid-state components increasingly became a driving force for fundamental changes in the computer industry, and led to a dynamic interplay between new computer designs and new programming techniques that resulted in a remarkable series of technical developments. The technical progress of the mainframe computer had always run parallel to conversions in the electronics components. During the period from 1945 to 1965, two fundamental transformations in the electronics industry took place that were marked by the invention of the transistor in 1947 and the integrated circuit in 1957 to 1958. While the first generation of computers—lasting until about 1960—was characterized by vacuum tubes (valves) for switching elements, the second generation used the much smaller and more reliable transistors, which could be produced at a lower price. A new phase was inaugurated when an entire integrated circuit on a chip of silicon was produced in 1961, and when the first integrated circuits were produced for the military in 1962. A remarkable pace of progress in semiconductor innovations, known as the ‘‘revolution in miniature,’’ began to speed up the computer industry. The third generation of computers characterized by the use of integrated circuits began with the announcement of the IBM System/360 in 1964 (although this computer system did not use true integrated circuits). The most important effect of the introduction of integrated circuits was not to strengthen the leading mainframe computer systems, but to destroy Grosch’s Law, which stated that computing power increases as the square of its costs. In fact, the cost of computer power dramatically reduced during the next ten years.

This became clear with the introduction of the first computer to use integrated circuits on a full scale in 1965: the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) offered its PDP-8 computer for just $18,000, creating a new class of computers called minicomputers—small in size and low in cost—as well as opening up the market to new customers. Minicomputers were mainly used in areas other than general-purpose computing such as industrial applications and interactive graphics systems. The PDP-8 became the first widely successful minicomputer with over 50,000 items sold, demonstrating that there was a market for smaller computers. This success of DEC (by 1970 it had become the world’s third largest computer manufacturer) was supported by dramatic advances in solid-state technology. During the 1960s the number of transistors on a chip doubled every two years, and as a result minicomputers became continuously more powerful and more inexpensive at an inconceivable speed.

Personal Computing

The most striking aspect of the consequences of the exponential increase of the number of transistors on a chip during the 1960s—as stated by ‘‘Moore’s Law’’: the number of transistors on a chip doubled every two years—was not the lowering of the costs of mainframe computer and minicomputer processing and storage, but the introduction of the first consumer products based on chip technology such as hand-held calculators and digital watches in about 1970. More specifically, the market acts in these industries were changed overnight by the shift from mechanical to chip technology, which led to an enormous deterioration in prices as well as a dramatic industry shakeout. These episodes only marked the beginning of wide-ranging changes in economy and society during the last quarter of the twentieth century leading to a new situation where chips played an essential role in almost every part of business and modern life.

The case of the invention of the personal computer serves to illustrate that it was not sufficient to develop the microprocessor as the enabling technology in order to create a new invention, but how much new technologies can be socially constructed by cultural factors and commercial interests. When the microprocessor, a single-chip integrated circuit implementation of a CPU, was launched by the semiconductor company Intel in 1971, there was no hindrance to producing a reasonably priced microcomputer, but it took six years until the consumer product PC emerged. None of the traditional mainframe and minicomputer companies were involved in creating the early personal computer. Instead, a group of computer hobbyists as well as the ‘‘computer liberation’’ movement in the U.S. became the driving force behind the invention of the PC. These two groups were desperately keen on a low-priced type of minicomputer for use at home for leisure activities such as computer games; or rather they had the counterculture vision of an unreservedly available and personal access to an inexpensive computer utility provided with rich information. When in 1975 the Altair 8800, an Intel 8080 microprocessor-based computer, was offered as an electronic hobbyist kit for less than $400, these two groups began to realize their vision of a ‘‘personal computer.’’ Very soon dozens of computer clubs and computer magazines were founded around the U.S., and these computer enthusiasts created the personal computer by combining the Altair with keyboards, disk drives, and monitors as well as by developing standard software for it. Consequently, in only two years, a more or less useless hobbyist kit had been changed into a computer that could easily be transformed in a consumer product.

The computer hobbyist period ended in 1977, when the first standard machines for an emerging consumer product mass market were sold. These included products such as the Commodore Pet and the Apple II, which included its own monitor, disk drive, and keyboard, and was provided with several basic software packages. Over next three years, spreadsheet, word processing, and database software were developed, and an immense market for games software evolved. As a result, personal computers became more and more a consumer product for ordinary people, and Apple’s revenues shot to more than $500 million in 1982. By 1980, the personal computer had transformed into a business machine, and IBM decided to develop its own personal computer, which was introduced as the IBM PC in 1981. It became an overwhelming success and set a new industry standard.

Apple tried to compete by launching their new Macintosh computer in 1984 provided with a revolutionary graphical user interface (GUI), which set a new standard for a user-friendly human–computer interaction. It was based on technology created by computer scientists at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in California, who had picked up on ideas about human– computer interaction developed at the Stanford Research Institute and at the University of Utah. Despite the fact that the Macintosh’s GUI was far superior to the MS-DOS operating system of the IBM-compatible PCs, Apple failed to win the business market and remained a niche player with a market share of about 10 percent. The PC main branch was determined by the companies IBM had chosen as its original suppliers in 1981 for the design of the microprocessor (Intel) and the operating system (Microsoft). While IBM failed to seize power in the operating system software market for PCs in a software war with Microsoft, Microsoft achieved dominance not only of the key market for PC operating systems, but also the key market of office applications during the first half of the 1990s.


In the early 1990s computing again underwent further fundamental changes with the appearance of the Internet, and for the most computer users, networking became an integral part of what it means to have a computer. Furthermore, the rise of the Internet indicated the impending arrival of a new ‘‘information infrastructure’’ as well as of a ‘‘digital convergence,’’ as the coupling of computers and communications networks was often called.

In addition, the 1990s were a period of an information technology boom, which was mainly based on the Internet hype. For many years previously, it seemed to a great deal of managers and journalists that the Internet would become not just an indispensable business tool, but also a miracle cure for economic growth and prosperity. In addition, computer scientists and sociologists started a discussion predicting the beginning of a new ‘‘information age’’ based on the Internet as a ‘‘technological revolution’’ and reshaping the ‘‘material basis’’ of industrial societies.

The Internet was the outcome of an unusual collaboration of a military–industrial–academic complex that promoted the development of this extraordinary innovation. It grew out of a military network called the ARPAnet, a project established and funded by ARPA in the 1960s. The ARPAnet was initially devoted to support of data communications for defense research projects and was only used by a small number of researchers in the 1970s. Its further development was primarily promoted by unintentional forms of network usage. The users of the ARPAnet became very much attracted by the opportunity for communicating through electronic mail, which rapidly surpassed all other forms of network activities. Another unplanned spin-off of the ARPAnet was the Usenet (Unix User Network), which started in 1979 as a link between two universities and enabled its users to subscribe to newsgroups. Electronic mail became a driving force for the creation of a large number of new proprietary networks funded by the existing computer services industry or by organizations such as the NSF (NSFnet). Because networks users’ desire for email to be able to cross network boundaries, an ARPA project on ‘‘internetworking’’ became the origin for the ‘‘Internet’’—a network of networks linked by several layers of protocols such as TCP/IP (transmission control protocol/internet protocol), which quickly developed into the actual standard.

Only after the government funding had solved many of the most essential technical issues and had shaped a number of the most characteristic features of the Internet, did private sector entrepreneurs start Internet-related ventures and quickly developed user-oriented enhancements. Nevertheless, the Internet did not make a promising start and it took more than ten years before significant numbers of networks were connected. In 1980, the Internet had less than two hundred hosts, and during the next four years the number of hosts went up only to 1000. Only when the Internet reached the educational and business community of PC users in the late 1980s, did it start to become an important economic and social phenomenon. The number of hosts began an explosive growth in the late 1980s—by 1988 there were over 50,000 hosts. An important and unforeseen side effect of this development became the creation of the Internet into a new electronic publishing medium. The electronic publishing development that excited most interest in the Internet was the World Wide Web, originally developed at the CERN High Energy Physics Laboratory in Geneva in 1989. Soon there were millions of documents on the Internet, and private PC users became excited by the joys of surfing the Internet. A number of firms such as AOL soon provided low-cost network access and a range of consumer-oriented information services. The Internet boom was also helped by the Clinton–Gore presidential election campaign on the ‘‘information superhighway’’ and by the amazing news reporting on the national information infrastructure in the early 1990s. Nevertheless, for many observers it was astounding how fast the number of hosts on the Internet increased during the next few years—from more than 1 million in 1992 to 72 million in 1999.

The overwhelming success of the PC and of the Internet tends to hide the fact that its arrival marked only a branching in computer history and not a sequence. (Take, for example, the case of mainframe computers, which still continue to run, being of great importance to government facilities and the private sector (such as banks and insurance companies), or the case of supercomputers, being of the utmost significance for modern science and engineering.) Furthermore, it should be noted that only a small part of the computer applications performed today is easily observable—98 percent of programmable CPUs are used in embedded systems such as automobiles, medical devices, washing machines and mobile telephones.

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