The Evolution of Computers

From the invention of the wheel to the beginning of using fire, man has been looking to simplify complicated tasks. And the most remarkable of inventions that lessen our burden and make our work very easy is undoubtedly the Computer. But the computer we use today is not the one invented by the Father of Modern Day Computers, Charles Babbage. It has undergone various modifications and improvisations to become the structure it is today, that has the whole world in it. Let us today learn about the various generations of computers and their features.

  • The earliest known device used for computation is the Abacus. It was used to perform simple calculations.


  • After that, Blaise Pascal developed the first basic calculator in 1642 which had limited applications.


  • This was followed by the invention of the machine that could perform basic arithmetic operations like addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division by Leibnitz in 1690.

These machines, however, did not have the option of changing the instructions as per the requirement i.e., they were not configurable. It was only in the year 1822 that Charles Babbage invented the machine called difference engine which was capable of performing calculations without human intervention. Later in 1833, he developed a machine called analytic engine whose technology inspired the modern computer.

3-1                         Chapter_2-60

The Difference Engine                                                              The Analytic Engine

Computers may be classified under five generations depending on their hardware.

First Generation Computers (1940-56)

In 1946, the first electronic computer, the ENIAC (Electronic Numeric Integrator and Calculator) was developed. A lot of vacuum tubes were used in its construction, because of which it is quite large in size and consumed a lot of energy to be kept cool. This started the first generation. They were totally different from today’s computers both in appearance and performance.




Vacuum tubes

This was followed by the IBM UNIVAC (Universal Automatic Computer). They used a basic programming language called the machine language. Apart from consuming large space and energy, the vacuum tubes had less efficiency and needed constant replacement.

Second Generation Computers (1956-63)

Keeping in view the disadvantages of the first generation computers, vacuum tubes were replaced with transistors in the second generation. This reduced the size, power consumption, heat generated and increased the processing speed. An improvement in the storage capacity was brought about. The machine language was done away with and higher languages like ALGOL and FORTRAN were used. IBM 1620 is an example of second generation computers.



Third Generation Computers (1964-71)

In the third generation, transistors were replaced with ICs (Integrated Circuits) which brought about a significant change in the size and efficiency of computers. ICs are semiconductor chips on which many transistors and other electronic components can be packed. Also, they became less expensive. With the introduction of monitor and keyboard, they became more interactive.

IBM 360, PDP 8 and PDP 11 are some examples.


        A third generation computer                                                    Integrated Circuits

Fourth Generation Computers (1971-2010)

With the development of monolithic integrated circuit technology during this period, millions of transistors were placed on a single IC. This led to the invention of the first commercially available microprocessor, Intel 4004. Computer memory and storage were greatly improved along with the processing speed.

It is in this generation that the world witnessed the use of smaller versions of computers like laptops and other handheld devices.




Fifth Generation of Computers

Fifth generation computers, currently in the developmental stage, use artificial intelligence through applications such as voice recognition and are highly sophisticated in terms of design. Research is going on in the fields of nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and quantum computation. With the advancements in superconductor technology, more compact and user-friendly interfaces with multimedia features are being developed.


Image sources: Encyclopedia Britannica, Spinfold.