- The History of the Electronic Computer
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- Henry Tropp, The Origins of Digital Computers: Selected Papers by Brian Randell - PhilPapers
A hugely important part of studying the epidemiology of diseases is being able to use statistics appropriately. Members of the Electronic Health Records group often write code in statistical programming languages in order to process and analyse data, but we rarely discuss how these programs came to exist.
Below is a non-exhaustive summary of some of the highlights in the evolution of statistical computing.
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For those who might want to read more about the history of statistics, the ASA maintain a Pinterest board on the topic! A Brief History of S. Computational statistics: papers collected on the occasion of the 25th Conference on Statistical Computing at Schloss Reisensburg.
Journal of Marketing Research, 6 , Statistics and the Introduction of Digital Computers. The origins of statistical computing [Online]. These demands were met on both sides of the Atlantic. Neither was capable of multiplication, but ability to do rapid addition, their ease of use, modest though not low cost, and rugged construction more than compensated for that deficiency. In the mids Dorr E.
Felt designed and patented an adding machine that was operated by pressing a set of number keys, one bank of digits for each place in a number. What was more, the force of pressing the keys also powered the mechanism, so the operator did not have to pause and turn a crank, pull a lever, or do anything else.
At around the same time, William Seward Burroughs developed an adding machine that printed results on a strip of paper, instead of displaying the sum in a window. His invention was the beginning of the Burroughs Adding Machine Company, which made a successful transition to electronic computers in the s and after a merger with Sperry s has been known as the Unisys Corporation. In Europe calculating machines also became a standard office product, although they took a different tack.
The Swedish engineer W. That led to a successful product marketed under the Odhner, Brunsviga, and other names. It was to have been built of metal and powered by a steam engine. Babbage spent many years attempting to bring this concept to fruition, but at his death in only fragments had been built. How different the world might have looked had he completed his machine makes for entertaining speculation. Would we have had an Information Age powered by steam? But once again, as with Pascal and Leibniz, one must keep in mind that the world was not necessarily waiting for a computer to be invented.
The History of the Electronic Computer
To have made a real impact, Babbage would not only have had to surmount the technical obstacles that dogged his Analytical Engine, he would also have had to exert considerable powers of salesmanship to convince people that his invention was of much use. One of the machines was sold to the Dudley Observatory in Albany, New York, but the Scheutz Engine had little impact on science or commerce.
The Information Age had to wait. By the end of the nineteenth century the state of the art of calculating had stabilized. In the commercial world the simple Comptometer or Odhner had taken its place alongside other office equipment of similar scope, like the typewriter or telegraph ticker. In the world of science—still a small world in those years—there was some interest but not enough to support the construction of more than an occasional, special-purpose machine now and then.
A similar situation prevailed in the engineering professions: books of tables, supplemented by an occasional special-purpose machine designed to solve a special problem e. In he responded to a call from the Superintendent of the US Census, who was finding it increasingly difficult to produce census reports in a timely fashion. Having invented this system he was impatient with having a sole customer that used it only once a decade, and so embarked on a campaign to convince others of its utility. He founded a company, which in merged with two others to form the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Corporation.
Henry Tropp, The Origins of Digital Computers: Selected Papers by Brian Randell - PhilPapers
The ascendancy of punched card equipment looks in hindsight to have been foreordained by fate: its ability to sort, collate, and tabulate large amounts of data dovetailed perfectly with the growing demands for sales, marketing, and manufacturing data coming from a booming industrial economy. Fate of course was there, but one must credit Hollerith for his vision and Watson for his tireless promotion of the technology.
In return, some scientists found that IBM equipment, with minor modifications, could be put to use solving scientific problems. For astronomers like L. Other scientists, including the above-mentioned Atanasoff, were beginning to propose special-purpose calculators that could execute a sequence of operations, as the never-completed Babbage Analytical Engine was to do.
Looking back on that era one sees a remarkable congruence between the designs for these programmable calculators and that of the never-completed Analytical engine. Babbage was not entirely unknown in the s, but most historical accounts of him described his work as a failure, his Engines as follies. That was hardly a story to inspire a younger generation of inventors. Those who succeeded where Babbage had failed, however, all shared his passion and single-minded dedication to realize in gears and wire the concept of automatic computing. Laziness as well as necessity is a parent of invention.
Aiken enlisted the help of IBM, which built the machine and moved it to Harvard. There, in the midst of World War II, in , it was publicly dedicated. In George Stibitz, a research mathematician at Bell Telephone Laboratories in New York, built a primitive circuit that added number together using binary arithmetic—a number system highly unfriendly to human beings but well-suited to electrical devices. These culminated in several large, general-purpose relay computers.
They had the ability not only to execute any sequence of arithmetic operations but also to modify their course of action based on the results of a previous calculation. In others respects the Bush Analyzer was similar to the other machines discussed above. Like the other pioneers, Bush had a specific problem to solve: analyzing networks of alternating current power generators and transmission lines.
The Differential Analyzer was a complex assembly of calculating units that could be reconfigured to solve a range of problems. The demands of the World War II led to a number of these machines being built and applied to other, more urgent problems. All of these machines used either mechanical gears, wheels, levers or relays for their computing elements. Relays are electrical devices, but they switch currents mechanically, and so their speed of operation is fundamentally of the same order as pure mechanical devices.
It was recognized as early as that one could design a circuit out of vacuum tubes that could switch much faster, the switching being done inside the tube by a stream of electrons with negligible mass. Tubes were prone to burning out, operating them required a lot of power, which in turn had to be removed as excess heat. There was little incentive to build calculating machines out of tubes unless their advantage in speed overcame those drawbacks. In the mids John V.
Atanasoff, a physics Professor at Iowa State University, recognized the advantages of tube circuits for the solution of systems of linear equations. This type of problem is found in nearly every branch of physics, and its solution requires carrying out large numbers of ordinary arithmetic operations plus the storage of intermediate results.
With a modest university grant Atanasoff began building circuits in and by had a prototype that worked except for intermittent failures in its intermediate storage unit. At that point Atanasoff moved to Washington, D. He never finished his computer. His proposal formed the basis of his doctoral dissertation, but aside from a few breadboard models little progress was made. The first major, successful application of vacuum tubes to computing came in England, where a team of codebreakers, in ultra secrecy, developed a machine to assist with the decoding of intercepted German military radio traffic.
Details of the Colossus remain secret, even after 65 years. But it has been revealed that although these machines did not perform arithmetic as a calculator did, they could and did perform logical operations on symbolic information, which is the heart of any electronic processing circuit today. The ENIAC, built at the University of Pennsylvania and unveiled to the public in February , belongs more to the tradition of the machines just described than to the general purpose electronic computers that followed.
It was conceived, proposed, and built to solve a specific problem—the calculation of firing tables for the Army. Its architecture reflected what was required for that problem, and it was an architecture that no subsequent computers imitated. Only one was built.
In the s computing was advancing on a number of fronts. The examples mentioned above were the most prominent, but behind them were a host of other smaller yet also significant projects. The metaphor of linear progress i. Advances in computing in the s were more like an army advancing across broken terrain. These now had to scurry to catch up. Of those other functions, none appeared as a greater hindrance than the one of supplying the processor with instructions.
Before electronics, the speeds of machinery were commensurate with human beings. The ENIAC is thus in the ironic position of being a pivot of history because of its shortcomings as well as its capabilities.
That meant that a problem that took minutes to solve might require several days to set up. The ENIAC team was in hindsight perfectly suited to the task: it included people with skills in electrical engineering, mathematics, and logic. Out of their discussions came a notion of designing a computer with a dedicated memory unit, one that stored data but did not necessarily perform arithmetic or other operations on its contents. Instructions as well as data would be stored in this device, each capable of being retrieved or stored at high speeds.