A Brief History of Computers and the Internet

The history of both computers and the internet are vast topics. Here I hope to touch on some of the significant and interesting people and technological breakthroughs that brought us to where we are today.

The prevalence of PCs and use of the internet has seen an explosive growth in the last 30 years. We'll talk about the internet more specifically on another day, and throughout the rest of the semester to give context to other lessons where relevant.

How does a modern computer work?

Hardware Components

  • CPU
  • RAM
  • Storage
  • Graphics
  • Interface chips (bluetooth and wifi antennas, usb, ethernet)
  • Motherboard connects all the components, allowing them to talk directly to one another and work together

Software Stack

  • Hardware
  • Firmware, Kernel
  • Operating System
  • Application

How did we arrive where we are today?

...with computers in our pockets, on our wrists, in our cars and refrigerators and lightbulbs...

It started with a type of math

Portrait of George Boole
George Boole (1815-1864) mathematician, philosopher, logician (source)
320010 0000
2551111 1111
2560001 0000 0000
Sample binary conversion table. If any switch can only have two states (on or off), representing longer numbers or and more complex data requires additional space.

Then a concept of mechanical problem solving machines

Portrait of Charles Babbage
Charles Babbage (1791-1871) mathematician, philosopher, inventor, mechanical engineer (source)

The Difference Engine

Calculating tables like this by hand is tedious and error prone.
Demonstration - one of two working Difference Engines in the world, on display at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA

Then programmable problem solving machines

The Analytical Engine

Partially constructed Analytical Engine on display at the London Science Museum
Partially constructed trial model of the Analytical Engine (source)
Thick, hole-punched cards strung together
Punched cards for the Analytical Engine (source)
Portrait of Ada Lovelace
Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) (source)

Then electromagnetic computers (faster, not smaller)

Portrait of Konrad Zuse
Konrad Zuse (1910-1995) German civil engineer, inventor (credit: dpa/Karin Hill)
Occupying a large table under glass case, the Z1 has several rows of vertical pins under flat plates
Replica of the Z1 in the German Museum of Technology in Berlin (source)
The Z3 is a bookcase-sized computer covered with an intricate array of electromagnetic components
Zuse Z3 replica on display at Deutsches Museum in Munich (source)
Portrait of George Stibitz
George Stibitz (1904-1995) (source) inventor of the "Model K" at Bell Labs
Portrait of Alan Turing
Alan Turing (1912-1954) mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher, computer scientist, mathematical biologist, and marathon and ultra distance runner
A working replica of a bombe machine, partially disassembled for display
Working replica of a bombe machine at the National Codes Centre at Bletchley Park (source)

Then, some advancements in programming

Portrait of Grace Hopper
Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992) American Computer Scientist, US Navy rear admiral
ENIAC Computer
ENIAC Computer
UNIVAC Computer
UNIVAC Computer at NASA
Grace Hopper at the control panel/console of the UNIVAC Computer, surrounded by coworkers looking on
Grace Hopper at the UNIVAC console, c. 1960 (source)

Then they got smaller (a lot smaller)

Kilby Integrated Circuit
Jack Kilby's first integrated circuit, 1958
Mohamed Atalla seated at the corner of a table smoking a cigarette during a meeting. Other people are present but their faces aren't visible.
Mohamed Atalla, 1963 (source)
Black and white formal portrait of Dawon Kahng, smiling
Dawon Kahng (source)
Close up product shot of three EPROM chips, showing the tiny integrated circuit through a hole in the top
Microchips (EPROM memory) with a transparent window, showing the integrated circuit inside. (source)
A macro shot showing the fine detail of the integrated circuit inside one EPROM chip
An EPROM microchip die showing the detail of the integrated circuit itself, and the silver wires which connect the die to legs of the chip. This photo covers about 5x4mm (source)

Then hobbyist enthusiasts could afford them

Copy of a postcard invitation to the first Homebrew Computer Club meeting
Postcard invitation to the first Homebrew Computer Club meeting (source)
Commodor PET 2001 series computer
Commodore PET 2001 Series Computer (source)
Apple II Computer
Apple II Computer (source)
Tandy (Radioshack) TRS-80
Tandy (Radioshack) TRS-80 Computer (source)

Then software became easier to use

IBM PC model 5150, 1981
IBM PC model 5150
PC-DOS logo
PC-DOS logo
PC-DOS screenshot
PC-DOS 1.10 screenshot
The first computer mouse
The Apple Macintosh
Windows 1.0 screenshot
Windows 1.0 screenshot

Then, the internet brought utility to having computers at home

Early Networks, ARPANET

DEC VT100 Terminal
DEC VT100 Terminal
ARPANET map 1974
ARPANET map 1974 (source)

The Internet

Portrait of Tim Burners-Lee
Tim Burners-Lee

Progress on many fronts made the mobile revolution possible

Chart showing the dramatic reduction in semiconductor size since the 1970s
Semiconductor size reduction since 1970 (source)
Apple A13 Bionic chip presentation, iPhone Sept 2019 event
TSMC chip fabrication process, 2011