The History of Computers, by Charles R. Hague

Around 1976 the Personal Computer, or “PC” as it was instantly labeled, was born. The first computer you could just walk into a store and purchase was a TRS-80 Model I. It sold for about $700 and included a black and white monitor, keyboard, and a cassette tape recorder for storing programs and data. It had a memory capacity of a whopping 4K – about one full page of a text or 4,000 characters. Given that this computer was “state of the art”, I think it is reasonable to compare it to today’s state of the art PC.

Comparing the TRS-80 to a modern PC:

The TRS-80 Model I had a Black and white screen with a resolution of 64 X 48 "pixels".  It had 4,000 characters of memory to hold programs and data.  Storage of data and programs was on a cassette tape drive that was very slow, limited in storage space and sequential.  Ability to upgrade was essentially non-existent.  An optional printer allowed for crude black and white printing of text only.  A modern PC has full color flat LCD screens taking up a fraction of the space while providing significantly larger displays.  Capable of displaying millions of colors and resolutions in excess of 1,600 X 1200 are common.  The computer itself typically has upwards of a gigabyte of memory, 128 additional megabytes for video memory.  100 gigabyte hard disks that operate at blinding speeds as well as DVD-ROMs that can also be written to. 

Today you can, for about $2,500, purchase a computer that I believe will have more computing power than all computers prior to 1976 combined! If you purchased a $300 computer today it would by itself, have more computer power than all the computer components of the Apollo space program – combined!

If you are wearing a digital watch, you are wearing more computing power than ENIAC, the first computer activated in June 1944. ENIAC weighed over 30 tons and used about 200 kilowatts of power. Although this monster computer was only capable of the most basic calculator functions, it was a time-saver, reducing calculations performed by hand from about 20 hours to about 30 seconds.

As computers have gotten more powerful, they have gotten significantly smaller, cheaper, require less power and continually increase capabilities. With a modest computer purchased from a store like Costco you can produce output that is essentially indistinguishable from that of a professional marketing company. Every aspect of the computer continues to improve and expand. You can watch and record digital movies (DVDs), listen to digital music (CDs), print full color photographs that will have you looking for “Kodak paper” on the back of the picture. Scan in and retouch old pictures and bring them back to life in ways you would have never thought possible. With a little effort you can retouch photos to remove blemishes, erase wrinkles, red-eye, braces, glasses, or in my case, even add hair! Your home PC can be your entertainment center for music, movies and games, a computer center, answering machine, fax machine and far more.

The Internet has actually been around for many years, but it is only in the last eight or ten years that it has been available to the general public. Probably no other single advancement in computer technology can rival the positive impact of the Internet! It has allowed millions of people from all walks of life and virtually all nations of the world to interact. Not only has the Internet introduced millions of people to computers, but also it allows for the exchange of information and knowledge along all lines of the human experience. The Internet has significantly enhanced exposure to art, music, science, technology, and a thousand other positive human endeavors. Computers are simpler to use today as is the Internet; and tomorrow it will be easier yet – and yet be more powerful!

The Internet allows millions of people to connect to tens of thousands of computer networks and other computers throughout the world. Utilizing their systems, information bases, features, functions, programs, pictures, videos, music, and more. The Internet is the closest thing to anarchy you will find in today’s civilized world. And while an anarchy has many benefits, and also disadvantages. Just as the positive nature of mankind can be shared and expanded, the negative side of mankind can grow as well.

An example of this negative side of the Internet are “Trojans” and computer viruses. Before anybody gets nervous that I will be discussing “Trojan condoms”, rest assured this is a family friendly discussion about computers. A Trojan is like the “Trojan horse” – looks like a neat gift that turns out to be something entirely different – and bad. Some programs sound nifty, but when you run them, it immediately does something destructive to your computer like deleting important files. A virus is similar but has an important additional characteristic; they replicate themselves and spread to other programs. The term virus becomes a little more clear when you understand that “infecting” another program is what a virus does. There are thousands of different computer viruses, and variations just like real-world viruses. They do different things, some pretty harmless, some actually humorous, and then of course there are many that are highly destructive.

Despite what the news would have you believe, computer viruses are still pretty rare, though they are more common than they were even just a year ago. The advancement of the Internet has provided an environment that viruses can thrive in – a lot of people connected together and exchanging files. Before use of the Internet was real common, viruses still existed but the ability to transmit to other computers was much more restrictive – often limited to floppy disk exchanges. Many people use anti-virus software and have a false sense of security. This false sense of security is because they think that the software itself will protect them – it cannot protect them if they do not frequently obtain up-to-date anti-virus information from the anti-virus software company. If someone will install an anti-virus program and keep the anti-virus information up-to-date, then they are well protected. Otherwise you are taking a risk, and I’m sad to report that the risk is increasing. After over 20 years of using and owning computers I just installed an anti-virus program on my home PC for the first time. The risk of not doing so is becoming too high – this is part of the “dark side” of the “Internet Force”.

And now, 66 years after ENIAC, we have brought computer technology within spitting distance of theoretical limits of physics. One reason computers are getting faster is that we are making the components smaller. There comes a point where the pathways that electrons travel become so small that the electrons will no longer fit through them. When we reach that point miniaturization will cease – unless a different approach is taken.

As is often the case with discoveries and inventions, we don’t usually get to where we are going by the path we think we need to travel. X-rays were discovered by accident, and one of the greatest inventions of all time was the result of a failed attempt to create a better rubber tire – I am speaking, of course, of “Silly Putty”. The next steps for the computer might be in places you’d least expect – biology! Organic computers utilizing DNA chains, or even chemical reactions that shrink technology down to the molecular level! Nanotechnology holds many exciting possibilities. If we create machines that can operate at the molecular level, we can construct our own molecular objects. A 747 could be constructed of diamond, weighing only 5% of an existing 747 and have significantly more structural strength! Cancer could be cured one cell at a time by an army of nanoprobes not too dissimilar to “Star Trek Borg nanoprobes”.

Some of our discoveries are amazing – not in what they do, but in how pathetically we utilize them. One of the greatest examples I can think of is nuclear power. We use this incredible force so indirectly that we only use a bit of the heat of the reaction to boil water for steam – like a high-tech steam engine. This is, in my opinion similar to running windmills by dropping high definition wide screen televisions by them and using the wind forced away by the falling TVs to turn the blades of the windmills. As we move technology to the next step – molecular level, we have the potential of utilizing energy sources that are essentially unavailable to use today.

Bill Gates is quoted as having said something to the effect of: “If General Motors had utilized technology as the computer industry has, we’d all be driving Ferrari’s that cost $25 and got 1,000 miles per gallon of gas”. Humorously General Motors is supposed to have responded: “But twice a day your car would crash and you’d have to replace it. Every time a line was painted on a road you’d need a new car, and before your air-bags deployed in a crash you’d be asked ‘Are you sure?’”

General Motors has a distinct disadvantage. They focus their efforts on making automobiles. Naturally they use computers to do this today, but their finished product is what? An automobile. Intel focuses their efforts on making computer chips and microprocessors. They too use computers to do this, but their finished product is a better computer that will make the next generation easier to develop!

Think of computer advancement like the discovery of the wheel. We started with a square – it worked, but not very well. We figured out that if we added one more side, that the effort to move it over the edge was easier. Since our initial square wheel we’ve added many more sides, perhaps dozens, but we still don’t have a round “computer technology wheel” yet.

Other than making us all say, “Wow, that’s cool!” what have computer done for us lately? Clearly computers provide significant convenience and allow for efficiencies never before imagined. By utilizing computers as a pseudo-extension of our brains we’ve gone further, seen more, and can do more than we could have ever dreamed! But although humans are patting each other on the backs saying “Job well done on that computer thing” they really have not progressed as much as they will. John Von Neumann, head of the US patent office is quoted as having said: “It would appear that we have reached the limits of what it is possible to achieve with computer technology, although one should be careful with such statements, as they tend to sound pretty silly in five years.” Mr. Von Neumann said this in 1949 – he was partially right, however, it does sound pretty silly.

So what do we have to do to discover the round wheel? We need to create artificial intelligence (or AI). This invention is most likely decades away (though crude forms exist today). The reason this is such an important step in the evolution of computers is that when we have created a true artificially intelligent computer, it can, using its superior computing ability, design a better artificially intelligent computer – and so-on and so-on. After just a few generations of artificially intelligent systems, we’ll see computer technology take a leap that we will compare to the Wright Brother’s flight to a mission to Mars.

AI has many definitions. If the goal is to mimic human thought, feelings, humor, etc. then this is a difficult task – though eventually attainable I’m sure. If the goal is to “understand” information and creatively use this understanding to create, then the task is somewhat simpler.

I’ll leave you with this final thought…are computers the next evolution of mankind? Clearly AI, if we attain it, will have come from mankind – never having existed were it not for our thousands of years of struggling and evolving and improving. Will future generations of humans or perhaps even other races recognize humans as the ancestors of computers? Just to be safe, I’d start being nice to computers and technology, one day they may judge you for your past actions, and one day you may rely on them for life support or even more scary, your cable television connection!