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

By Sophia Maddox | April 17, 2024

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

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.

 

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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.

The World's First Dynamic Random Access Memory Computer, the Intel 1103, Transforms the Industry

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In 1969, William Regitz of Honeywell started contacting companies looking for someone to share in developing a dynamic memory circuit containing a three-transistor cell that workers had developed. After being turned down by several companies, Intel became excited about the project and assigned Joel Karp to work with Regitz.

After developing the 1X, 2Y cell and creating the Intel 1102, Intel officials decided that a 2X, 2Y cell would work better, leading to the release of the 1103 in October 1970. This allowed manufacturers to move away from bulky magnetic-core random access memory and to refine previous transistor-based memory cell designs. R.H. Dennard, who designed the one-cell transmitter, said the development of this cell "allowed RAM to become very dense and inexpensive. As a result, mainframe computers could be equipped with relatively fast RAM to act as a buffer for the increasing amount of data stored on disk drives. This vastly sped up the process of accessing and using stored information."