The Computer Revolution: From Room-Sized to Pocket-Sized

By Sophia Maddox | March 14, 2024

Alan Turing Envisions a Universal Computer

Computers are an integral part of life. People use them to communicate with people who are important to them at work and home. Many people look up information that they want to learn on a computer. Others watch movies, play games or entertain themselves using computers. From early morning to late night, people rely on computer systems to help them stay organized.

While it is hard for most people to imagine life without computers, it hasn't always been that way. Here's a look at how people developed computers and their operating programs. Along the way, meet some people who influenced their development. You'll discover how computers went from filling entire rooms to being small enough to fit in your pocket.

 

test article image
source: reddit

Starting around 1936, Alan Turing proved that there was no universal way to create a computer program that could undecidedly determine whether any mathematical problem could be solved. During his research, he made the Turing machine, a mathematical model where a computer follows a series of steps with a finite number of options available with each step. The hypothetical Turing machine contains an endlessly expandable tape, a tape head capable of carrying out instructions, and a control mechanism with rules the computer must follow. The tape includes squares that the tape head can change. By following the steps and changing information on the tape as needed, the computer could arrive at an answer to a mathematical query. While Turing's universal computer was never constructed, it is seen as the first theoretical computer to contain an input/output device, memory and a central processing unit.

John Backus and Team Forge the First High-Level Programming Language, FORTRAN

test article image
reddit

According to John Backus, before his team developed FORTRAN, a computer programmer "had to employ every trick that he could think of to make the program run fast enough to justify the rather enormous cost of running it. And he had to do all of that by his own ingenuity because the only information he really had was the problem at hand, and the machine manual." He also pointed out that, sometimes, there was not even a manual. In addition, many computer programmers considered the information they had amassed highly guarded secrets that they would not share willingly.

In 1957, John Backus was working for IBM when he proposed to his superiors that the company develop a more practical alternative to assembly language that told computers what you wanted them to do. The development of FORTRAN eliminated the need to hand-code computer programs, helping to reduce startup costs. The program became widely accepted and was considered the standard for many decades.