History of Computing: context and technical achievement

As discussed today in class, you have a choice between two essay topics for this initial assignment. Choose one, and submit your comment by Saturday, September 14th at noon. Use parenthetical citations in the format (Author, page number) to reference quotes, statistics, or particular ideas from the readings.

Option 1:

After discussing Turing’s life and work in class, I asked you what being gay might have to do with the singularity, from the perspective of the history of computing. Write an essay that attempts to answer this question, using specific evidence and analogies from computing history that we have studied so far. Be attentive to historical context, but feel free to be creative with your argument in answering this question. Just be sure to back up your claims with specific historical details and evidence. (400-600 words)

Option 2:

Write an essay that discusses the similarities and differences between the Colossus, ENIAC, EDVAC and EDSAC. Make sure your essay puts the machines in their historical context by discussing what each one did and why it was important. Your essay must have a clear argument that tells us something new & non-obvious about the history of computing and shows change over time. (400-600 words)

A diagram of  early computer “relationships” and influences that may be of help (click image for larger version):


  1. Kevin President

    The 20th century gave birth to a host of innovative ideas which molded the history of computing as we know it today. The Colossus, Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer (EDVAC), and the Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Computer (EDVAC) were the children of some of history’s most brilliant minds.

    In the fall of 1943, Tommy Flowers, an engineer at the post office, designed and built a machine that would be used as a code breaker at Bletchley Park. This machine would debut to be the world’s first digital, programmable computer and was called the Colossus. Although the Colossus was viewed as an improvement to Max Newman’s electromechanical computer, the Heath Robinson which had many flaws such as the constant breaking of the tape, many people were still skeptical of the design. The Colossus used 1500 vacuum tubes to perform its operations, which in the eyes of many, was bound to be disastrous. Flowers disagreed and explained that as long as they were not switched off and used at maximum capacity, the machine would be durable.

    Meanwhile in the United States of America, John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert designed a similar electronic machine namely the ENIAC. The purpose of the ENIAC was to compute ballistics trajectories for the army during World War II. However, the ENIAC was finished in fall 1945, after the war. Therefore, unlike the Colossus, the ENIAC did not make a great contribution to the outcome of the war.

    In this same year, a new string of designs for computers emerged. Unlike the Colossus and the ENIAC, these were stored program computers which used a binary system. The binary system was the idea of the great problem solver, Alan Turing, and is still being used in 21st century computers. The main benefit of those computers was the speed of operation. They no longer had to be programed prior to each task, because they were able to store those programs in their memory. Also they did not depend on as many moving parts as their predecessors.

    One of those computers was the EDVAC. It was designed by a group of engineers including John Mauchly, J. Presper Eckert and J. Von Neuman. The design was proposed in 1945 but the computer was built in 1949. The computer began operation two years after, at the Ballistics Research Laboratory in 1951 because of a dispute between J. Presper Eckert, John Mauchly, and the University of Pennsylvania. This eventually led to the resignation of J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly, and the formation of their company Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation.

    Another influential computer is the EDSAC. The EDSAC was based on the design of the EDVAC and was constructed by Maurice Wilkes at The University of Cambridge. The EDSAC is very significant to the history of Computing because it is the first practical stored program computer. It was operational from 1949 and was used to solve real problems.

    Computers have become a part of our everyday lives, and it is because of the efforts of engineers such as John Mauchly, the history of computing has unfolded into the present. These computers range from electro-mechanical to electronic and stored program computers, but they all were made with the goal of aiding us humans in our daily computing.

  2. anonymous

    From a student who prefers to remain anonymous:

    Since the dawn of the industrial revolution in the early 1800s, there has been interest in mechanically automating mathematical computations, for purposes ranging from astronomy to naval navigation to ballistics trajectories. The first person to envision such a mechanism was Charles Babbage, in the 1820s/30s, who designed two different mechanical calculators, which were intended to be used for computing and printing navigational charts for the British navy, at least by those who commissioned his work. Although he had some success, interest in automation remained mostly stagnant until the outbreak of WWII in Europe, more than a century later. Made possible by technological advances in component manufacturing and electronics, interest in automation was a less dubious investment than it had previously been, an investment which would eventually win the war.

    The Colossus, or Colossi, was designed by Tommy Flowers to implement Max Newman’s mathematical process of decrypting German, Lorenz-encoded communications. The first was constructed in the Fall of 1943, and operational by January 1944. It was the world’s first electronic, digital, programmable computer, and its importance to the Allied war effort cannot be understated. Without the ten Colossi computers that were constructed, the Allied invasion on D-Day would likely have been a catastrophic failure, as the German communications would still have been secret.

    Although commissioned before the first of the Colossi was constructed, the ENIAC, or Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, was envisioned as a general-purpose computer, and eventually used for ballistics computations. Designed by John Mauchly and John Eckert, with assistance from John von Neumann, it wasn’t operational until Fall of 1945, after the war in Europe had come to a close. Unfortunately, due to a number of design flaws, the ENIAC was extremely unreliable, and spent more time offline for repairs and reprogramming than it spent online running calculations. In fact, when engineers from Los Alamos attempted to use the ENIAC for nuclear calculations, their problem was too complex to be solved by the ENIAC and actually served as an extensive debugging routine for the ENIAC designers and operators.

    The EDVAC, or Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer, was proposed in 1945 by John Mauchly, John Eckert, and John von Neumann as a re-envisioned ENIAC. It was loosely based on the ENIAC, but improved by logical contributions from von Neumann. Although it was electronic, digital, programmable, and Turing-complete, like the ENIAC, it used binary internally instead of decimal. It was operational by 1951, and remained a reliable machine until it was decommissioned in 1961.

    Around the same time, based on John von Neumann’s report about the EDVAC, Maurice Wilkes and his team at the University of Cambridge began working on the EDSAC – Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator. Although construction of the EDVAC began before the EDSAC, the EDSAC was operational in May 1949, almost two full years ahead of the American team.

    While it was war that spurred the interest in automation, it was made possible by the technological advances of the time. After the war, development pressed forward, driven by the desire to reduce the manual labor required to operate these machines and their size, and increase their overall efficiency and processing power.

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