From Sticks to Silicon – A brief history of computers

Most of us have computers, and the fact you can read this means that you either own one or are using one. Most of us have a very limited knowledge of the development of computers, and may believe that the first computers were developed in the 20th century, but the proverbial cogs which drove this development had started far before that. Here, I have put together a very brief history on the development of computers.


Let’s start at the basics, the first evidence of counting originated from about 50,000 B.C. This would have been the primitive hunter-gatherers using the skill of counting in either trade or comparisons. Much later came metal working, mainly bronze at about 4,000 B.C. This discovery began was what is now known as the “Bronze Age”. Between 4,000 B.C and 3,000 B.C, we begin to find evidence of writing, and numerals, which is a fundamental part of modern computing. A lot later, we see the first “calculator”, used in a loose term. This was an abacus, know as the “Salamis Tablet”. This allowed people to make calculations using a device. I believe this is the ancestor to modern computers.


In 1492, an Italian by the name of Leonardo da Vinci, sketched ideas for a mechanical adding device, but never implemented it. Da Vinci also sketched designs for the first armored vehicle (a tank) and the first flying machine


In 1502, clockwork was beginning to appear, and the first pocket watch was invented by Peter Henlein, a German craftsman.


The 17th Century saw the first calculators, but these were expensive and were not commercially viable.

In 1623, the first mechanical calculator was invented by Wilhelm Schickard. This was not a calculator one could fit in their pocket. This device was able to add and subtract six digit numbers. In 1642, Frances Blaise Pascal invents the Pascaline, a calculator to aid his father who reorganised tax revenues. This was the first commercially sold calculator, with about 20 made in total. in 1647 Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz tops all these by making a machine which can multiply, divide add and subtract numbers.

The 19th Century sees the rise of mechanisms to solve mathematical problems. As of yet, computers store very little or no memory.

In 1804, Frances Joseph-Marie Jacquard creates a fully automatic loom (a device which weaves cloth) by using punch cards. In 1820, Thomas de Colmar created the first commercially successful calculating machine, which is accessible to the masses. In 1831 Joseph Henry invented the first working telegraph machine, this was the beginning of fast communication. In 1875 The company American Telephone and Telegraph Company is founded, which is now known as AT&T. In 1876. Alexander Bell invents the first telephone.

First Telephone


The 20th Century sees the dawn of computers as we know them.

In 1912, we see the development of the first lithium battery, from G.N. Lewis. Only three years later, the first cross-continental telephone call is made by AT&T between San Francisco and New York. 1941 sees Konrad Zuse  finish the Z3, a fully program-operational calculating machine, which may be the first programmable computer. 1943 sees the first electrical computer, called the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, a general purpose calculator, which is then distributed. The first commercial programmable computer appears in 1950, created by Konrad Zuse. It was named the Z4. The first Integrated Circuit (a.k.a Computer Chip) was invented by Robert Noyce. Its purpose was to be able to run a particular function as part of a computer system.

The Z4 Computer


In 1961, the first robot was set up by General Motors for work on a production line. 1967 sees the first floppy disk, which was created by IBM. In 1968, the first Personal Computer (PC) was marketed by Hewlett-Packard. 1970 sees Intel sell the first RAM chip, which could hold 100 bits of information. The first Internet connection was established by ARPA, called SATNET. SATNET was a wide area network designed to link universities to enable communication. In 1987, the first chip-sets were beginning to appear on motherboards. In 1990, the first dial-up connections were available, a system which allowed most people to use their phone cable to connect to the internee. In the 1990s, the Internet boomed, including the use of .com domains and 1995 saw the first Wikipedia page.


GM’s Unimate Robot, the first to be used on a production line

Fun Fact

We see the term computer “bug” coined in 1945. Grace Hopper, while working on the Mark II, discovered a problem with one of the circuit boards in the computer. She found that a moth had entered the system, frying itself and the system. This is where the first use of the term computer bug originated from. In 1952, we see the creation of the first computer game, a very simple game of Noughts and Crosses, also known as Tic-Tac-Toe. On the same year, the American National Security Agency (NSA) is established. 

Article Written by Struan McDonough




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