Friday, August 16, 2019

Before computers ruled the Earth

After World War II, policy makers and scientists thought that the world would only need a handful of computers. We know better now. Today, devices like wristwatches and washing machines, and even tootbrushes, are equipped with computers sized less than 10 mm². These 'embedded’ computers have become a commodity. 

vignette from a stock certificate in the GM Hughes Electronics Corporation

The definition of a computer has changed with time 

During the Middle Ages the word ‘computer’ was used for a person employed to perform computations. Following advances in mathematics and technology, people tried to develop calculating devices to save time and prevent human errors. In 1623, the German Wilhelm Schickard designed the first calculating machine capable of doing simple additions and subtractions. 

These ingenious devices calculated outcomes in mechanical ways and are not comparable to what we know as modern computers. To understand this jump in technological evolution, we need to look at the definition for ‘a modern computer’. 

Simply said, a computer is a machine that ‘performs work’ or ‘output’. In order to perform that work the machine requires some ‘input’, like information and energy. This seems obvious today but imagine that you are a cotton dealer, let's say, somewhere in the 1790s. 

You - the cotton dealer - visit the watchmaker in your town, then the finest engineer in precision mechanics. You tell him that you need a machine that can perform some work. You explain your watchmaker also that you want to provide instructions to the machine so it can perform different kinds of work. Furthermore, the machine should be able to ‘store’ these instructions and ‘carry them out at some time’. Your watchmaker would be perplexed, maybe even terrified.

Jacquard’s loom, the first use of punched cards holding instructions to control machine function 
image: G. Bruno - Le Tour de la France par deux enfants, Engineering and Technology History Wiki 

Babbage, conceiver of the programmable computer

Our watchmaker in our story just now, actually received an order for our computer: a programmable machine, one that can be fed with instructions to be executed at some time. The merchant in the story was the English mathematician and engineer Charles Babbage (1791-1871). He was the first person to conceive the idea of a programmable computer. 

In 1822 Babbage designed prototypes of his ‘Difference Engine’ which could calculate polynomial functions and print the results automatically. His ‘Analytical Engine’, described in 1837, had a far more elaborate design. It would have been capable of storing 1,000 large numbers in a mechanical way and it would be programmed using punched cards that just needed to be put into the machine and let it run. 

Using punched cards for controlling a machine’s output was an idea coming from loom technology that Babbage applied in another context. Joseph-Marie Jacquard earlier had improved the weaving process by using punched cards. The holes punched in the cards corresponded to the woven rows of the textile pattern. 

Babbage could never complete his machines due to lack of political support and budget problems. He left us only partial prototypes and his paper designs, and the idea of a general purpose computer.

1881 share certificate in the Connecticut Telephone Co, the first telephone switching office (New Haven) 

The Industrial Revolution leads to development of computer elements 

In the 19th century, increases in industrial activity and international trading were accompanied by comparable increases in the amount of data to be processed by companies.

Faster and more reliable communication over longer distances became crucial. Different forms of transmitting information appeared and several technological advances quickly succeeded each other. All of them contributed to the making of the modern computer :

  • 1829 William Austin Burt patents the first typewriting machine in the USA. 
  • 1830 The American Joseph Henry demonstrated the first electric telegraph 
  • 1843 Per Georg Scheutz (Sweden) and his son Edvard finished their version of Babbage’s Difference Engine. It was the first machine that could print mechanically calculated tables. 
  • 1846 Alexander Bain uses perforated ‘ticker’ tape to transmit telegrams. 
  • 1852 Charles Xavier Thomas de Colmar starts the commercialisation of his Arithmometer, the first mass-produced mechanical calculator in the world. 
  • 1861 The Italian Giovanni Caselli invents the first practical telefax machine. 
  • 1865 Rasmus Malling-Hansen of Denmark invented the Writing Ball, the first commercially sold typewriter. 
  • 1867 Christopher Latham Sholes starts designing the first successful typewriter with a keyboard as we know it today. Remington will manufacture the model in 1873 with the QWERTY layout. 
  • 1870 William Stanley Jevons, a British logician, constructs the first practical logical machine by means of which a conclusion could be derived mechanically from a set of premises. 
  • 1870 Thomas Alva Edison invents the Universal Stock Ticker, a forerunner to the electric typewriter. It printed telegraphed information remotely on a typewriter. 
  • 1876 Alexander Graham Bell patents the first practical telephone, but it will take almost another 100 years before computers start using telephone lines for communication.

Société Bénéficiaire de la ‘Remington-Sholes Visible’, 1000 Francs share, 1910 
This Paris based company obtained the rights to distribute the Remington-Sholes Visible typewriter in France. 

The office computing revolution 

In 1880 the US Census took place. It took seven years to process the data manually. With a lot of new immigrants in the 1880s, the Census Bureau realised that it would be impossible to process the 1890 census data before the next census in 1900. 

Herman Hollerith devised an electric tabulating system to accomplish the task of quickly counting and sorting data. He used punched cards like Jacquard, but this time, instead of machine instructions, the actual data was punched on the cards. Information categories like age, sex, etc. were represented by specific holes on the card. It was a success. The 1890 census was processed in a few months. 

In 1896 Hollerith formed the Tabulating Machine Co. His tabulators were quickly introduced in Europe for other censuses, and in accounting, banking and industry. Tabulators, and peripheral machines for managing punched cards (records), would be the most important data processing machines for more than fifty years. 

International Business Machines Corporation, unissued stock certificate on punch card 
Around 1970 several attempts were made to deal with the huge amount of paper work involved with stock market  transactions. One of these trials involved the introduction of punch card stock certificates combined with optical character recognition technology. 

Hollerith’s company eventually merged with three other companies to form the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Corporation. Thomas John Watson renamed it into the International Business Machines Company (IBM) in 1924. 

IBM had a fierce competitor that was offering cheaper machines. That was the Powers Tabulating Machine Company, later known as Powers Accounting Machine Company. Formed in 1911. Powers merged in 1927 together with Remington Typewriter Company and Rand Kardex Company to form the Remington Rand Company. 

In the UK, Hollerith formed the Tabulator Ltd in 1902. The company obtained the rights to sell Hollerith’s machines. Renamed in 1909 as the British Tabulating Machine Company, it would eventually become ICL. Here, in the UK, the Powers-Samas Company was competing with Hollerith’s BTM.

In Germany Hollerith founded the Deutsche Hollerith Machinen-Gesellschaft (DEHOMAG) in 1910.

The vignette on the National Cash Register share shows the company's Class 2000 electric accounting machine. Introduced in 1921 it featured 30 totalizers. NCR will build during WW II electronic code-breaking machines. Not much later they become a well-know computer manufacturer. 

 The National Cash Register Company, 100 shares, issued 1955 

In this pre-electronics period, typewriters, calculators, cash registers and tabulating machines went into mass production by American companies like National Cash Register Company, Burroughs Company, Powers Company and Felt & Tarrant Company.

The Bull, Elliot Fisher and Odhner companies serviced European offices. A Japanese electric tabulating machine was developed at the Ministry of Communications and Transportation in 1905.

The machines became reliable, smaller and simpler in use and manufacturers started to electrify parts of their products. However, their devices were still single purpose machines. And they could not ‘store’ instructions. Babbage seemed to have been forgotten.

The pre-World War II period sets the stage 

The Englishman Alan Turing conceived his Universal Turing Machine in the 1930s. This ‘UTM’ would read symbols, such as letters and numbers, from a tape device, process them by using transition rules, and output new symbols as a result. Turing realized the transition rules, which were just symbols, could be put on tape as well and be read by his machine, instead of building them into the ‘hardware’. 

Brown, Boveri & Cie, Mannheim, 1000 DM specimen bond, 1956 
German engineer Konrad Zuse built his Z1 electro-mechanical computer in the late 1930s. The machine used a binary system: it used only 0s and 1s. His company, Zuse KG, was purchased in 1964 by the German subsidiary of Brown, Boveri & Cie, who in turn sold most of its Zuse interests to Siemens three years later. BBC would introduce in 1969 its first industrial process computer, the DP-100. 

At that time the German engineer Konrad Zuse used what is called a ‘binary system’ in his Z1 machine. A binary system, also known as a digital system, uses only 0s and 1s. The basic element Zuse used for his machine was a mechanical switch, which could represent a 0 and 1 (off/on state).

Zuse’s Z3 machine, operational in 1941, used relays (electromechanical switches). It was the first programmable digital computer but it could not store its program because it was read from punched film tape. The German High Command refused any further funding for a much faster machine using vacuum tubes. 

American Telephone & Telegraph Company, stock certificate for 2 shares, 1942 
The signature at the bottom right is from Walter Sherman Gifford, then the company's President. In 1927 Gifford had a video telephone conversation with Herbert Hoover via AT&T's telephone network. Talking about innovation ! 

In 1939 the Bell Telephone Laboratories subsidiary of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company built the first computing machine to work remotely over telephone lines with teletypes. 

The same year, Harvard University, under the lead of Howard Aiken, started building the Harvard Mark I at IBM. This electromechanical giant was finished in 1944. It was driven by a five-horsepower electric motor and used 500 miles of wire.

In Japan Fuji Electric Works worked in 1940 on a relay-based computing machine.

World War II created demand for more sophisticated computing machines 

WW II forced the Allies to develop general purpose computers. The English BTM company devised ‘The Bombe’, an electromechanical machine to break the coded messages generated by the Enigma machines of the German Navy.

In response to the more sophisticated Lorenz machine, used by the German High Command, an entirely electronic machine, the Colossus, was completed in 1943 at the Government Code and Cyphering School in Bletchley Park. This digital machine stored the deciphering key in its internal vacuum tube memory. Yet this machine still was not a general purpose computer. 

The US military faced another pressing problem: the mass generation of artillery firing tables. The Electronic Numerical Integrator Analyzer and Computer (ENIAC) was built by John Mauchly and John Adam Presper Eckert at Pennsylvania University. This 30 tons weighing electronic machine was finished several months after the war. It could perform 5,000 additions per second and was 1,000 times faster than relay-based machines.

The ENIAC proved electronic systems were viable. However, it was hard to reprogram the machine as it needed to be rewired for each new task. The ENIAC solved problems in minutes but took days to reprogram.

International Business Machines Corporation, stock certificate from 1946 
In 1944 IBM starts building the Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator. The "SSEC" was a hybrid of vacuum tubes and electromechanical relays. Instructions were read from paper tape. 

In parallel with the ENIAC development, Eckert and Mauchly started to build the Electronic Discrete Variable Computer (EDVAC), a stored-program computer. The internal architecture became known as the ‘von Neumann’ machine.

John Von Neumann conceived the idea of a special ‘control transfer’ instruction which permitted interrupting and restarting program execution at any point. Since this point almost all computers have contained five major architectural components: input, output, memory unit, control unit and an arithmetic unit.

Also at the other side of the Atlantic Ocean research teams joined the race for the first general- purpose electronic computer.

At Manchester University, Freddy Williams used a cathode ray tube surface for storing program instructions. CRT's were used as radar and television screens. It was Williams' team that finished in 1949 the first electronic digital general-purpose stored-program computer. The program had to be written in binary code, a laborious and error-prone process.

J. Lyons & Company, Ltd, 8% cumulative preference stock, 1951
This company was a British restaurant and tea-shop chain, food manufacturing business and hotel conglomerate. In 1947 J. Lyons provided additional funds for the pioneering EDSAC project at the University of Cambridge. After its completion the company decided to build a digital general purpose computer on its own, the LEO I (Lyons Electronic Office).

Maurice Wilkes, from Cambridge University, used an idea from Eckert to store the program instructions not in a million vacuum tubes but to use sound waves circulating in mercury delay lines. His Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator (EDSAC) project received crucial support from J. Lyons & Company, Ltd.

The EDSAC was the first practical general-purpose stored-program computer because it was much easier to use than its predecessors. Wilkes used an alphabetic shorthand for programming, which was faster and more intuitive for the programmers. The computer then translated the shorthand into binary instructions. The age of computing could now really kick off. 


  1. This article is based on an article previously written for Scripophily magazine, Dec 2010, No.84, published by International Bond and Share Society 
  2. More about computer history and scripophily ? See here  

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