Computer Prototype

Overview The electronic computer has evolved far past any expectations that could have been imagined during the first part of the 20th century. During the 1940s, the first electronic computers were being designed and built. Some of these early computers were pressed into immediate service for important tasks including code breaking and trajectory prediction. These early computer prototypes helped in the development of many of the digital technologies with which we are familiar today, such as binary data representation, programming, and hardware components. Now these giants from the past can be found in both private, and museum collections.

Computer History Resources Although mechanical computers and other calculating devices have been in existence for a long time, modern digital computers are a new technology. From counting on one’s fingers, to modern supercomputers, all computing tools perform the same basic tasks--collecting, manipulating, storing, and outputting data. What machines were the ancestors of the electronic computer prototypes in the mid-twentieth century? Visit the History of Computing Hardware Web page to read about the abacus, the slide rule, the punched card, and tape technologies. Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine is also covered here. Further information about Charles Babbage and his designs can be found at www.cbi.umn.edu/tc.html. For an overview of the history and development of computers, visit the Jones Telecommunications & Multimedia Encyclopedia’s Web page Computers: History and Development. The Web page www.elsop.com/wrc/h_comput.htm is another source of information about the development of the computer industry with articles about many of the early computer prototypes.

ABC The Atanasoff-Berry Computer (ABC), designed and built by John Vincent Atanasoff and Clifford Berry, is widely regarded as the first electronic computer. The ABC used vacuum tubes, binary numbers, and a rotating drum for memory. It was desk-sized and could perform one operation every 15 seconds--incredibly slow, even compared to today’s calculators. Read more about the ABC at the University of Iowa’s (the birthplace of the ABC) Web page: www.cs.iastate.edu/jva/jva-archive.shtml. This About.com Inventors Web page has detailed information about the ABC’s inventors Atanasoff and Berry.

COLOSSUS The COLOSSUS was an early computer prototype developed during World War II to break encoded German messages. COLOSSUS was built out of standard post office equipment parts. The computer itself remained a national secret until 1970. The algorithms it used for decryption tasks remain a secret even now. Visit any of the following Web pages to learn more about this remarkable computer prototype.

ENIAC The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) was an early computer prototype that was originally designed to calculate complex trajectory calculations for the U.S. military after World War II.  Read all about it on the following Web pages.

Computer Prototype Images Are you looking for pictures of the early computer prototypes to gain a perspective of the size of these machines? If so, visit either www.crowl.org/Lawrence/history/ or ftp.arl.mil/ftp/historic-computers/ to browse through a wide selection of photographs and illustrations.