History and Hardware

Wayne Cook

Since most advances in computer science are tied to specific manufacturers, I decided to combine my history and hardware sections together. This section discusses some of the major events and major players, both past and present in the Hardware industry. Since the purpose of my adding pages is to relearn the Software skills I do know but in which I may be a little rusty. I will purposely keep this area short. Initially, I will just have a list of hardware producers, eventually, they will become links to the actual descriptions. If you can think of any I may have forgotten, please let me know.

Also there is some cross-over between hardware manufacturers and software designers. There are some companies that will be mentioned in both categories. Cross references will be made.

  1. Pre-history and Early recorded history
  2. Abacus
  3. Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace
  4. Jacquard Mechanism (loom)
  5. Hollerith Machine
  6. International Business Machines (IBM)
  7. Turing Machine
  8. ENIAC
  9. Alwac
  10. Burroughs
  11. Control Data Corporation (CDC)
  12. Tektronix
  13. Digital equipment Company (DEC)
  14. Wang
  15. Hewlett Packard (and the various flavors thereof)
  16. Atari
  17. Commadore
  18. Tandy
  19. Cray Incorporated
  20. Apple
  21. Xerox
  22. Apollo
  23. Compac
  24. Sun Microsystems
  25. Dell
  26. Oracle
  27. Sony
  28. Toshiba
  29. Lenova

Pre-history and Early recorded history

There are many ancient inventions that are interesting with respect to technological developments. Ancient Origins has an excellent description of ten technological advances of the ancient world. Also, Pierce Fuller has an interesting collection of non-electric adding machines.


The first recorded use of an abacus was between 2700 and 2300 B.C. in Mesopotamia. It was also developed about the second century B.C. in China and India. Wikipedia also has a good history and use of the abacus.

Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage worked together to improve the hardware and software of Charles’ invention. Charles Babbage was an English mathematician and the inventor of “Differential Engine.”

Charles Babbage - the inventor of the mechanical computer
Charles Babbage – the inventor of the mechanical computer
Ada Lovelace, the inventor of programming calculating machines
Ada Lovelace, the inventor of programming calculating machines

Ada Lovelace was the daughter of Lord George Gordon Byron and aristocratic Lady Anne Isabella Milbanke Byron. Lord Byron left his wife when he found out that the new baby was a girl. Normally girls were trained in the fine arts in the early 1800s, but Lady Ann wanted Ada to have nothing to do with the poetic arts of Ada’s father. Ada was extensively trained in mathematics and the sciences, even though she was not allowed to attend college at that time. One of her mentors was Charles Babbage, who showed her his differential Engine.

Luigi Menabrea, an Italian engineer, wrote an article in French about Charles Babbage’s analytical engine. Ada was so fascinated by the article and the invention that she annotated the English translation of the article with instructions of how to “program” the analytical engine to perform Bernoulli numbers sequence creation. Her thoughts on the subject led her to believe that eventually such a machine could do far more than just mathematical calculations.  Her work had been forgotten for about 100 years, until B. V. Bowden wrote “Faster than Thought” in 1953 and published her paper as a part of that book.

Jacquard Mechanism (loom)

Jacquard Loom was one of the first programmed mechanisms. Its purpose was to create tapestry or material with complex patterns. It used large punch cards to determine the pattern of the item being created. If the same program (punched cards deck) is run on a loom, it would produce the same finished item. The best way to understand how it works is to watch it in action. The punch cards are hard strips with holes drill into them. The cards can be put in a loop. It was still operated by a person, but one person could control the loom and produce consistent products.

Hollerith Machine

Hollerith electric tabulating machine, 1902. Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
Hollerith electric tabulating machine, 1902. Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

In 1880, the US Census Bureau was realizing they were not going to be able to keep up with the analysis of the data due to the ever-growing population of the United States. They put out a request for people to come up with ideas of how to analyze the Census Data. Three companies competed for the prize of handling the data analysis for the 1890 Census. Herman Hollerith, a former Census employee, developed the use of punch cards to store the Census data.

Hollerith’s card sorter analyzed Census data by looking at each column of the cards for how the holes are punched. He then would use a card reader to gather the actual statistics. The card he invented was the size of a U.S. dollar bill in 1880 (bills have subsequently decreased in size). Every Census used his machines until 1950. The census switched to computers in 1960. His cards did continue on for several decades as Hollerith Cards used by IBM and other companies. I am sure everyone who went to school in the ’70s have found memories of using these cards. The US Census Bureau has an interesting article about the development of the Hollerith Machine.

Herman Hollerith‘s tabulating machine was a very useful tool, licensed to the governments of Norway, France, and Russia as well as the United States. Many countries acknowledged the usefulness of this technology. Hollerith began negotiations with Charles Ranlett Flint in 1907 to combine his Tabulating Machine Company of Washington, D.C. with the International Time Recording Company of Endicott, N.Y. and the Computing Scale Company of America, of Dayton, Ohio. The merger created the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (C-T-R) in June 6, 1911. Later Charles Flint brought Thomas John Watson into C-T-R because of his marketing expertise. In 1914 Thomas Watson became president of C-T-R and in 1924 incorporated International Business Machines.

International Business Machines

Thomas Watson founded the International Business Machines in 1924 (see a brief history in the section above). IBM grew because of the popularity of the Hollerith card technology. Many of the early competing computer companies used cards for information input into their systems. As disk storage developed, the needs for cards decreased. In 1966, it took 62,500 punched cards to store five megabytes of data. It would take four days to read and load. The following picture is from Facebook’s Historic Photographs group.

5 Megabytes of Data

Turing Machine

Alan Turing was a mathematician who worked with the British government during World War II. One of his interests was to have a machine duplicate a human in solving tasks. He originally thought of a box where a mathematician submitted information on the left. A human in the box was given a set of instructions to follow one step at a time. When the calculations were completed, the box would produce an answer of “yes” or “no” on its right side. A good video giving an example of a Turing Machine follows. Also, the Turing Machine looks at the input of the square where the “tape head” is located, and from its set of instructions determines if the “tape head” has to move one space to the left or right. A common misconception is using “touring” instead of “Turing” for the name of the machine.

Example of a Turing Machine

Because of this work, Alan Turing became good at decoding other systems. He used this ability to understand the German Enigma Machine to help the allies decipher German transmission.


ENIAC was developed at the University of Pennsylvania with funding from the United States government. It was the first programable electronic computing machine.


In the 1950’s and 1960’s Tektronix had a thriving oscilloscope business. In the early 1970’s they decided to use their technology to create some of the first graphic computers and terminals. They enlarged their green-on-the-screen cathode ray tube displays to create the basis for the 4081. One technology Tektronix had developed was to vary the intensity of the writing beam that put images on the screen. With a more intense beam, the image created would last on the screen until the system was turned off or the program that displayed the image ended. The less intense beam was used for the moving images instead of the fixed images. You can see a demo video at Vimeo of a 4081 Demo. You can easily tell which were the static and dynamic character and figures in the demo.

One of the first demonstrations used was a flight simulator. Some of the engineers who wrote this simulation eventually ended up at Microsoft. The first flight simulator that Microsoft developed looked very similar to the one on the 4081. In fact the plane number on the instrument panel was 4081. I always wondered if there was any connection. At the same time they were developing the 4081 graphic computer, they were also developing the 4014 graphic terminal. The difference between the two was that the terminal depended on a server for completing all but the most basic graphic work.

2 Responses to History and Hardware

  1. Sweet blog! I found it while surfing around on Yahoo News. Do you have any suggestions on how to get listed in Yahoo News? I’ve been trying for a while but I never seem to get there! Thank you

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