Everyone knows that computers have dramatically shrunk in the past 60 years, but it’s become such a normalcy that the common person takes it for granted, and my 1-year old daughter will never know what it was like to carry around a 5 lb. gray hunk of plastic that used to be what passed for a cell phone.
Exactly how much have computers changed in the past 60 years? One great example of what our modern-day computers used to look like is the Manchester Small-Scale Experimental Machine, nicknamed “Baby”. Baby, which ran its first program over 65 years ago in Manchester, UK on June 1, 1948, was the world’s first stored-program computer. The program it ran was to determine the highest factor of the number 218, which took almost an hour to compute. It wasn’t meant to be regarded as a full-fledged computer, but rather proof that the concept would work. This proof of concept led to the production of the Manchester Mark 1, which eventually led to the creation of the world’s first commercially available general-purpose computer.
F.C. Williams, who wrote the program, said the following about its first successful run:
“A program was laboriously inserted and the start switch pressed. Immediately the spots on the display tube entered a mad dance. In early trials it was a dance of death… But one day it stopped, and there, shining brightly in the expected place, was the expected answer. It was a moment to remember. This was in June 1948, and nothing was ever the same again.”
Compared to the light-weight tablets and smartphones we carry around today that fit easily in a back-pack or purse, “Baby” was enormous, measuring over 17 feet long and over 7 feet tall. The technology that Baby made possible is exhibited nearly everywhere in modern day life. There are computers hidden away (or embedded) in everything from digital alarm clocks, to toasters, to your house alarm; even the traffic lights you pass under every day on your way to work. Because of the technological advancement made possible because of this huge machine, we use tiny, evolved computers dozens of times a day without even realizing it.
How many computers have you used today, and how would your life be different without them?