1.3 A brief history of Computers and Communication Technology


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ContentsIntroductionBasicIntermediateAdvancedFuturePolicyInfrastructure

With hindsight and a wide-ranging perspective it is possible to trace computers back to the abacus. But the computer as we use it dates from the mid 1950's - a complex circuit of electrical switches. The first computers consisted of a complex bank of switches which were manipulated by hand to represent numbers. There were used to perform numeric calculations. At the same time''the Borroughs Machine'' was being developed to hold business information in punched cards which was sorted mechanically by machines. A card held 56 or 80 rows and each row could be punched with a sequence of holes which represented a number or letter. The cards could then be feed through a mechanism which printed the represented characters a line per card onto paper. By the late 1950's the computers switch panel was replaced by a removable plugboard on which a ''program'' could be kept permanently wired and the holes in the cards were used as the ''switches'' describing the problem numbers. And the printing mechanism replaced the original bank of lights representing the ''answer''. However the card sorting machine was not a part of these early computers. The cards were usually sorted in a seperate sound-proofed room on special sorting machines which also had small plugboards. The computer data was all held on cards which would occupy the bulk of the space in the room in massive arrays of steel cabinets and boxes.

Only 40 years of hindsight can now tell us of another major development. In response to the ''red peril'' of the 50's and 60's the US created the DEW line, the Early Warning Detection and Communication System of missiles from Russia. At the same time the semi-conductor and magnetic tape media were being developed. By the early 1960's the computer as we understand it - an integrated machine which accepts character based input and produces character based output, stores this data and manipulates it in complex ways was developed.

Many of the problems which computers had been invented to solve were products of the 2nd World War, for example the logistics problems of supplying and transporting an army. Another example is code-breaking. In the 1960's the problems were of a commercial and organisational nature, such as the tracking of banking transactions, mail order sales, and project management. The most obvious advanced project management example was launching a space ship. Computers held large amounts of data, but noone kew how to organise this data in a way which allowed the organisational integrity of the data to be easily maintained. In the late 1960's the concept of the Management Information System was developed and sold by the computer megaliths of that time. The first Database Management Systems were developed and available then. They supported hierarchal and ''bill of materials'' file structures.

These integrated solutions failed because they did not adequately solve the problem of easy maintenance but the notion that the data held on computers was a valuable business resource was taken on board and forms the basis of the notion of Information Technology. In 1969 the Theory of Relational Database (RDB) was developed but it was the mid 1970's before RDB software was readily available. The theory of RDB is perhaps the first aspect of Information Technology that can be seen to be a product of the recognition that Information is a valuable resource independant of the system for which it is originally required.

In hindsight we can see that computer languages are also a fundamental part of information technology. Here again early attempts at designing computer languages were initialy successful but again failed due to the problems of maintaining the code, updating it and ensuring its integrity. At the same time as RDB theory was being developed, the Unix operating system and the language C were being developed. Neither of these developments were backed by major computer companies, for the commercial giants had huge investments in maintaining their existing product base.

In the mid 1970's the first small computers "minis" and "midis" were available which used floppy disks, Unix and C. When IBM presented the world with the PC, Unix and Apple computers had already been around for 5 years. The appearance of the PC was simply the final confirmation of what was to be the future trend, downsizing.

By the early 1980's it was clear that soon computers would be in every home and be a part of every ones life: not just an influence but a tool that everyone would have some use for. The time for computer education in schools had arrived. The notion of "Information Technology" as a new branch of an already well recognised subject of Technology began to be developed.

Exercise - Write a brief history which focuses on aspects of Information and Comupter Technology. Suggested subjects are:

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