3 A Brief History of Computer Technology

3 A Brief History of Computer Technology Next: 3.1 The Mechanical Era Up: OV Chapter

3 A Brief History of Computer Technology

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A complete history of computing would include a multitude
of diverse devices such as the ancient Chinese abacus, the
Jacquard loom (1805) and Charles Babbage’s “analytical
engine” (1834). It would also include discussion of
analog and digital computing architectures. As late as the
1960s, mechanical devices, such as the Marchant calculator,
still found widespread application in science and
engineering. During the early days of electronic computing
there was much discussion about the relative merits of
analog vs. digital computers. In fact, as late as the 1960s,
analog computers were routinely used to solve systems of
finite difference equations arising in oil reservoir modeling.
In the end, digital computing devices proved to have the
power, economics and scalability necessary to deal with
large scale computations. Digital computers now dominate
the computing world in all areas ranging from the hand
calculator to the supercomputer and are pervasive
throughout society. Therefore, this brief sketch of the
development of scientific computing is limited to the area
of digital, electronic computers.

The evolution of digital computing is often divided into
generations. Each generation is characterized by
dramatic improvements over the previous generation in
the technology used to build computers, the internal
organization of computer systems, and programming
languages. Although not usually associated with computer
generations, there has been a steady improvement in
algorithms, including algorithms used in computational
science. The following history has been
organized using these widely recognized generations as


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