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

By Sophia Maddox | February 1, 2024

Alan Shugart and His Team at IBM Invent the Floppy Disk

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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In 1971, Alan Shugart and a team at IBM invented the memory disk, which later became the floppy disk. A disk drive in a computer grabbed the floppy disk and spun it like a record as the machine read the information on its magnetic iron oxide middle, where users could store data on one or both sides. The original floppy disk was an 8-inch square that could hold 100 KBs of data. Researchers used it to move data between one computer and an IBM 3330, which they used as a storage device.

The team soon decided that the floppy disks were too big. One night, team members Jim Adkisson and Don Massaro were discussing the idea with their boss Ag Wang of Wang Laboratories while getting a drink. Ag pointed at the cocktail napkin and said about that size. Soon, the team created a 5.25-inch floppy disk that could hold 1.2MB of data.

Meet the Architect Behind COBOL, Grace Hopper

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After graduating from Yale University with a Doctorate in Mathematics, Grace Hopper gave up a teaching career at Vassar College to join the U.S. Navy. She worked on developing the Mark I computer at Harvard University and wrote a 500-page operator's manual for the Automatic Sequence-Controlled Calculator. After World War II, she became a research fellow at Harvard University before joining Eckert-Mauchly Corporation and assisting with developing the universal automatic computer.

By the mid-1950s, businesses faced a problem applying computers to their companies. They were spending about $800,000 on programming costs and $500,000 on hardware to run them. A group convinced the United States Department of Defense to tackle the problem. Grace Hopper and others solved the problem by writing Common Business-Oriented Language (COBOL), allowing computers to understand words and numbers. She based COBOL on FLOW-MATIC language, which she developed first. While being modified a few times, it became the standard program all computers use.