Where Computers Came From


This post is part 2 (out of 6) in a series of blog posts: 

  1. Computers Today
  2. Where Computers Came From (this blog post)
  3. Computer Hardware
  4. Computer Programs
  5. Why Are There so Many Programming Languages?
  6. Where Did BASIC Come From?

           

Where did computers come from, and why do they exist?

You could probably say that it all started with the Babylonian abacus in 2400 BC (see Figure 1), but pushing beads on a stick is a little different than the computers we use.

Figure 1: The Babylonian abacus

Although it wasn’t the first calculator, the biggest breakthrough in computers started in 1879, when Herman Hollerith took a job at the United States Census Bureau.

Here’s some U.S. timeline context: The Civil War ended in 1865, the National League of baseball started in 1876, Wild Bill Hickok was shot and killed in 76, Alexander Bell invented the telephone in 76, Ulysses S Grant (General Grant in the Civil War) ended his presidency in 1877, and Thomas Edison invented the light bulb in 1879, the same year that Hollerith graduated with his engineering degree and went to work at the Census Bureau.

Like many important inventions, this one was a solution to a big problem: it took seven years to add the data from the 1880 Census. Seven years! And the 1890 Census was forecasted to take over 10 years to tabulate! But Hollerith was prepared, and in the mid-1880s, he had his first punched card system working (see Figure 2). In 1889, he became famous when he presented his system at the World Exposition in Paris, and in 1890, he was hired by the U.S. government for the 11th U.S. Census: 43 Hollerith machines tabulated 62 million punched cards in just three years (much less than the forecasted 10+ years).

Figure 2: The Hollerith tabulation machine

Let’s fast forward… Hollerith then founded the Tabulating Machine Company, and it merged into the Computer Tabulating Recording Company in 1911, which then changed its name to International Business Machines Company (IBM) in 1924. For 90 years, those tabular machines evolved into the computer devices that we use today! 

  

Next, read #3 in this series (or go back to #1 if you skipped it): 

  1. Computers Today
  2. Where Computers Came From (this blog post)
  3. Computer Hardware
  4. Computer Programs
  5. Why Are There so Many Programming Languages?
  6. Where Did BASIC Come From?

 

Have a good bye!

   - Ninja Ed

Comments (3)

  1. MINOR UPDATE: Bolded some text: "Here’s some U.S. timeline context"

  2. UPDATE: Added the series links at the bottom.

Skip to main content