How We Got Here (30)

June 18, 2014


We tend to forget that before the world was changed by personal computers, the world was changed by mainframes. Computers were invented for gunnery control (if you were going to aim your cannons in fast-moving situations, or from fast-moving platforms, you had to make too many computations too fast to do it by hand). Like other things – like air conditioning, like airplanes, like so many other things, as we’ll see — the technology matured rapidly as money was poured into development, and as it moved from the military to the civilian sphere.

The first computers were electronic, but they were also mechanical. The computations themselves took place as fast as the electrons could hustle, but which paths they followed – what operations they performed, in what order, depended upon hard-wired boards that had to be switched out, one after another, in the correct order, to get the job done. It was a big breakthrough, the day someone figured out how to tell the machine to (in effect) change its own wiring, task by task. Enter the programmable computer. Now all the figuring out was done in advance. Instructions were fed into the machine via decks of punched IBM cards the size of the pre-war dollar bill. The machine read the deck card by card, executed each instruction one by one, and, if the programming was right, went from operation to operation at electronic, rather than at manual, speed.

Initially the machines were so expensive, that IBM president Thomas Watson estimated that worldwide demand for computers might be as high as six, an estimate that wasn’t spectacularly accurate.

At first they were programmed in what is called machine language, a binary digital language consisting of groups of zeros and ones. Machine language is also called microcode:  hence, Microcode Software – Microsoft. You can imagine how difficult it is to program. Then someone invented Assembler, which made matters easier. (If you’re interested, Then came FORmula TRANslation (FORTRAN) for scientific and mathematical calculations, and COBOL (COmmon Business-Oriented Language) for the relatively simple manipulation of massive amounts of data. These languages turned the computer into a practical way to automate many more real-world applications. COBOL for instance started to replace payroll calculations and bank statements.

This created a huge market, and IBM and other companies learned how to fill it. The IBM 360 and 370, particularly, poured into the business world in great numbers, creating large profits which could be, and were, poured back into further research and development.

By the 1960s, they were everywhere in business and government. (The space race wouldn’t have gone very far without them.) Less visibly, they were transforming military applications, as well. But the mainframe computer was never going to make its way into the home or small office, so the personal computer was a revolution built upon a revolution, which is practically shorthand for the story of technology in the 20th century.



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