There are many differences between Babbage’s difference and analytical engines and the machine sitting on your desktop now. Those machines are mechanical and yours is electronic. So, who invented the first electronic computer? As with most inventions, the digital computer was the work of many different people.

Like Babbage before him, Iowa State College (now Iowa State University) mathematics and physics professor Dr. A.S. John Vincent Athanasoff required a lot of computing power for his work. Even though he had one of the best calculators of its day, it still took a long time to do calculations. Also, like Babbage, Atanasoff wanted to see if he could do better. In 1937 he went for a drive to clear his mind and when he stopped for a drink, decided what kind of device he would build. His machine would use electricity. And rather than the base-10 standard, his computer would use the binary system our modern computers use.

Iowa State provided funding for the machine and Atanasoff hired an exceptionally talented graduate student Clifford Berry to help him realize his vision. They showed the prototype to Iowa State officials who then granted Atanasoff and Berry funding to build the real thing. By 1942 the Atanasoff-Berry Computer (or ABC) was ready

World War II spurred the creation of many new computers to solve specific problems. One was ENIACdesigned to compute artillery range tables. Another was Colossusused to break German codes at Bletchley Park in the U.K. In 1949, the world’s first practical stored-program computer, the EDSACentered history. Unlike earlier computers which were built to perform one specific task, the EDSAC could do multiple tasks. In the early 1950s, engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) completed Whirlwind I, designed to train pilots. Project Whirlwind introduced magnetic core memory to the world.

The first commercial computer was 1951’s UNIVAC (Universal Automatic Computer) built for the U.S. Census Bureau by the makers of ENIAC. It was huge, weighed 16,000 pounds (7,258 kilograms) and had 5,000 vacuum tubes. It rose to fame when it correctly predicted Dwight D. Eisenhower’s landslide presidential victory when only a small percentage of votes had been counted. UNIVAC could do 1,000 calculations in a second, an amazing feat at the time.

In 1956, IBM’s 305 Random Access Memory Accounting System (RAMAC) was the first with a hard drive. Piece by piece, the modern electronic computer was starting to come together.

In 1968, Douglas Engelbart demonstrated a prototype of the modern computer, which included a mouse and graphical user interface (windows, icons and a menu). This showed that the computer could be of benefit to more than academics and technical experts and reach the lay public.

Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, two friends who met on a camping trip, began working in a garage in Palo Alto, California. Their first product was an oscillator to test audio equipment. Hewlett-Packard’s HP 9100A scientific calculator was released in 1968 and used the phrase “personal computer” in its advertising. The HP-85, released in 1980, was their (actual) first PC.

Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs both had experience at Hewlett-Packard. While still in school, Jobs landed an internship by cold-calling Bill Hewlett. Wozniak not only worked for HP but also offered the design for the Apple I personal computer to the company five times, and was turned down each time.

Eventually, the two Steves left HP to start their own company in a garage, just as Hewlett and Packard had. The Apple I launched in 1976, followed by the Apple II in 1977. The Apple I was the first “fully assembled” personal computer, though buyers still needed a case, power supply, keyboard, and display to go along with the fully assembled circuit board. The Apple II included a case with a keyboard, plus more RAM and color graphics.

IBM’s 5150 Personal Computer, released in 1981put computers on the desktops of businesses around the world and came with a system unit, a keyboard and a color/graphics capability. It used the MS-DOS operating system from Microsoft. Throughout the 1980s, computers got less expensive and included more features until they became indispensable to almost every home and business.

Originally Published: Jan 12, 2011

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