history of computer part2


Our journey through the captivating Computer Evolution continues as we venture into the remarkable transition from mechanical calculators to the electrifying innovation that forever changed the landscape of computation. In our previous installment, “Computing Evolution: Part 1 – From Fingers to Marvels“, we explored the origins of human calculation and the early mechanical devices that paved the way for more sophisticated computing technology.

Now, we’re about to embark on an adventure that traces the logical progression from mechanical computation to the injection of electricity into the world of computing, shaping the modern era as we know it today.

The Origins of the term “computer”

The term “computer” has a long history, with its earliest recorded use dating back to the early 17th century. At that time, it referred to a person who carried out calculations or computations manually. The word itself has its origins in the Latin word “computare,” which means “to calculate.”

For many centuries, “computer” was exclusively used to describe individuals who were skilled in performing mathematical calculations by hand or mentally. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that the term started to be associated with machines capable of automating these calculations.

The emergence of electronic computers during World War II marked a significant turning point in the use of the term. These machines were capable of performing complex calculations automatically and with great speed, making them indispensable for various scientific, military, and commercial applications. As a result, “computer” became the standard term for these new mechanical and later electronic devices, and it has retained that meaning ever since.

Computer Evolution: Transitioning from Mechanical Calculators to Electrifying Innovation

The path to electrified computing begins with the rich history of mechanical calculators, which laid the groundwork for the infusion of electricity into computation. These early devices, such as the abacus, counting boards, Napier’s Bones, and Schickard’s calculating machine, demonstrated humanity’s quest for precision and efficiency in mathematical operations.

The Role of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine:

Computer Evolution Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine

A pivotal moment in this transition arrived with the visionary Charles Babbage and his revolutionary creation, the Analytical Engine.

The Analytical Engine was a proposed mechanical general-purpose computer designed by English mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage in the mid-19th century. It was intended to be an extension of Babbage’s earlier invention, the Difference Engine, and would have been capable of performing a wide range of calculations and logical operations.

The Analytical Engine was designed to use punched cards to store data and programs, which would allow for a great deal of flexibility in the types of calculations it could perform. It was also designed to have a “store” that could hold up to 1,000 numbers, and a “mill” that could perform arithmetic operations on those numbers. The machine was also designed to have a conditional branching capability, which would allow it to execute different sets of instructions based on the results of previous calculations.

One of the most notable features of the Analytical Engine was its use of a “control unit” that could be programmed to perform a wide range of logical operations. This was a significant innovation, as it meant that the machine could be programmed to perform tasks beyond simple mathematical calculations, such as generating music or graphics.

Despite its advanced design, the Analytical Engine was never built during Babbage’s lifetime due to a lack of funding and technological limitations of the time. However, Babbage’s designs were later used as inspiration for the development of modern computers, and his work is widely regarded as laying the groundwork for the development of computing as we know it today.

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace, a friend and collaborator of Babbage, is often credited with being the first computer programmer for her work on the Analytical Engine. She saw the potential of the machine to be programmed to perform a wide range of tasks and wrote the first algorithm intended to be processed by the machine.

Computer Evolution: Enter Electromechanical Computing (Late 19th to Early 20th Century):

Herman Hollerith

At the end of the 19th century, computing devices were being used for ad hoc purposes in science and engineering but were seldom seen in business, government, or home life. However, the American government encountered a significant problem during the census of 1890, which required the kind of efficiency only computers could provide.


The US Constitution mandates that a census should be conducted every ten years for the purposes of federal apportionment, representation in Congress, and other important reasons. By 1880, the population of the United States was increasing rapidly, mainly due to immigration. The previous census process took seven years, and it was predicted that the census of 1890 would take 13 years to compute. This posed a dilemma when it had to be done every ten years. The Census Bureau turned to Hermann Hollerith, who had built a classifying machine. His machine was “electromechanical” and used traditional mechanical systems, such as a step calculator. All of these systems were insufficient for the task at hand.

Herman Hollerith’s Punched Card Machine:

Punched Card Machine

The Holreth machine used a set of cards, which were paper cards with a grid of locations that could be punched to represent data. For example, there was a series of holes for marital status. If you were married, you would punch the married spot, and then put the card into the Holreth machine, and some metal needles would pass over the card.

The spot was pierced, and the needle would pass through the hole into a small vial of mercury, which in turn completed the circuit. Now this complete circuit fed an electric motor, which turned a cog to add up by one, in this case, increase by one for the sum of the pairs. Holreth’s machine was nearly ten times faster than tabulation. The manual census process was done in two and a half years, saving the Census Bureau millions of dollars.

Computer Evolution:The Tabulating Machine Company

The Tabulating Machine Company

Businesses started recognizing the significance of computing and its capacity to enhance profitability through the optimization of labor and data-intensive functions like accounting, insurance, valuation, and warehouse management. To address this growing need, Herman Hollerith established the Tabulating Machine Company, which later merged with other machine manufacturers in 1924, ultimately becoming the international giant IBM (International Business Machines Corporation). These electromechanical machines enjoyed immense success, reshaping the landscape of both commerce and government.

As the mid-twentieth century approached, the world witnessed a population boom and a surge in global trade. This necessitated even more rapid and adaptable data processing tools, complete with accelerators to support the emergence of digital computers.

The Electrifying Era of World War II – Harvard Mark I

Harvard Mark I

The electrifying era achieved its zenith during World War II, exemplified by machines like the Harvard Mark I that showcased the extraordinary potential of harmonizing electrical and mechanical computing. These machines played pivotal roles in wartime calculations and scientific research, underscoring their indispensable contributions to the war effort.

The Harvard Mark I, one of the most massive electrical and mechanical computers ever constructed, stands out as a testament to this era. Completed in 1944 by IBM for the Allies during World War II, it boasted a staggering 765,000 components, three million connections, and a network of five hundred miles of wires to synchronize its internal mechanisms. Its operation was facilitated by a 50-foot shaft driven by a five-horsepower motor.

Notably, one of the earliest applications of this technology was in conducting simulations for the Manhattan Project.


In conclusion, our exploration has illuminated the logical transition in Computer Evolution from mechanical calculators to the injection of electricity into computing, a journey marked by visionary inventors, collaborative efforts, and persistent innovation. This evolution laid the foundation for the electrifying era that played a pivotal role in shaping modern computing and propelling us into the digital age. As we reflect on this remarkable journey, we acknowledge the pioneers and their groundbreaking inventions that continue to influence and inspire the ever-evolving field of Computer Evolution.

2 thoughts on “Computer Evolution: Part 2 – From Mechanical Marvels to Electrical Wonders”
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