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Time-Lines, Problems


Why is a "History of Computing" project so difficult?
with comments about "Time Line of Computer History"

Have you read a nice, easy to read, understandable "History of Computers"?
I'm a computer junkie, and I would like one also -
I have both editions of Mike Williams' "History of Computing Technology" :-))

But it seems impossible to produce such a history - in less than a book shelf -

This note attempts to explain this great challenge.

Complexity on so many levels !!

Lets view a few levels :-))

  1. Hardware -
    • we have come from amazingly complex gears, levers, cams, punched cards, ...
    • through vacuum tubes with glowing filaments, heating red cathodes, flying electrons, ...
    • through generations of transistors with pure silicon intentionally "doped" with strange chemicals, that work somehow
    • and now into a silicon chip smaller than your fingernail that has millions of transistors, most smaller than the cells in your body.
    • and computer speeds have gone from hundreds of instructions per second to say 500,000,000 instructions per second per core.
    • human interfaces, printers, punched cards, keyboards, monitors, video cards, computer music,
    • memories of various sorts -
    • machine interfaces, serial, parallel, SCSI, Ethernet, ...
    Try to describe the above, even at the college level -
    and we have not touched on analog computers, specialized telephone switches, specialized military, imbedded, data acquisition, ...
  2. Software -
    • At my first computer job you could make a one card program to type out "Hello World"
    • On a 1975 8K PET computer, you could teach any 10 year old kid to program in BASIC, "Hello World" in about 10 minutes
    • In the 1980's, when "C" was developed, you needed an operating system, with print format module, dynamic memory allocation, device drivers, loaders, permissions, ...
      After several days of C class and a much larger machine, a student could "Hello World"
    • In the 2000's you need Linux or Windows. A mere mortal can barely install Linux, Apple has an embarrassing number of incompatible generations of software, and no one understands how Windows works, or doesn't as the case may be.
      Now, a very low percentage of "us" have a computer equiped to create a "Hello World" program.
    • Applications - what an explosion, even GPS receivers,
    • Does any of us understand placing a dot on a monitor, a computer animation with polygons, ...
    • .
  3. Computers for sale
    • Back in the good olde dayze, many different manufactures, each with different lines of non-compatible computers. Lots of magazines with lots of interesting discussions.
    • Then around 1965, IBM introduced a line of "do everything pretty good" computers called the 360 architecture. If you had enough memory ..., basically you could run any 360 program on any 360 computer. (well - maybe not the 360 mod 20, a different beast.) Things started to get standardized and boring.
    • Now, most of us run Windows (or Linux or an Apple variant) on INTEL architecture, and who bothers with a computer oriented magazine any more? The only discussion is how many identical "cores" are on your chip and can your software make use of more than one?
  4. And People, a whole stadium of interesting contributors.
  5. And the companies, financing, failures, ... . And bench marks/speeds, and prices, sales techniques, and ...

The above is a bit of a history of stored program digital computers, but not at all satisfying.

We want a little meat on the above bones.

OK - lets take a one view of the history of computers - the computers for use or sale.

Sounds simple enough - well it isn't. Here is a U.S. centric list of manufactures.

Well let's make a tree attempting to trace the genealogy of which computer development begat what (approximately, mostly)

Here is a tree that does not include early starts such as Zuse, Atanasoff, Aiken
and terminates in 1964,
before any of the computers most of us know about.

Squintable version
Readable version, 340 K bytes
and another, less complete list,
ends at 1975, about when the Apple (1), PET, "Trash 80" ;-)) were introduced.
Well before the IBM PC.
page one
page two


Hmmmm - People keep using the term "Time Line" of Computer History -

Implying to me that you
  1. draw a line on a paper, or a line on a museum floor,
  2. place some (ascending?) dates on the paper or floor and
  3. populate the line with old computer oriented stuff/information
    Sounds simple to me - what can the problem be??
    I contend that a computer oriented history is a multidimensional web, not a line
    • computer names and/or artifacts
    • computer technologies, say memories, switches (relays, tubes, semiconductors), packaging, ...
    • computer equipment, key punches, sorters, accounting machines, printers, displays, bank document handlers, ...
    • computer companies, product lines,
    • computer people
    • computer speeds, storage, costs, usage, ...
How to place the above on a line?? - In an understandable way? - Seems a great challenge!!

NOW - "Your challenge, should you accept it," is to make a "time line" from the above trees, representing history

and hopefully include the successive technologies and software "enhancements".
And hopefully some illuminating comments about "core memory", computer graphics, and ...
And don't leave out any of Tom's or Dick's or Harry's first computer or favorite item - they notice and frown!

Intimidated? Well, I am !! I wouldn't touch such a project with a "ten foot pole". Yet, good people, smarter 'n me, are trying it.
- This is far beyond "engineering compromise" which I practiced for many years.

I figure if I can't improve it, I should *not* criticize it.
(This statement does not include "modern art", I have thrown and spun paint, and feel I am as good as any "artist". ;-))

A NOBEL PRIZE (in which category) to someone who can satisfy more than 10% of the general English speaking population??

And fit the above into a Ph.D. program? a tour lasting less than a month? 45 minutes?
- through the usual administrative committees?, ...


Ed (you bet my lip is buttoned) Thelen

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Updated November 1, 2008