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Remember the “luggables”?  These portable computers were predecessors to laptops, notebooks and netbooks.  Osborne introduced its first model in 1981, quickly followed by Kaypro and then Compaq which improved on Osborne’s tiny screen, making it 5 and later 7 inches wide.  Still it only had a Z-80 processor with 64K of RAM.  They listed for about $1795 and some came bundled with software (BASIC, WordStar, SuperCalc).  Mine had a cradle on the top for placing the telephone handset to use the internal modem. It looked like one of those CPR machines the ambulance techs carry (see the Osborne, below). And it almost ripped my shoulder off.

The Osborne 1

Old tel modem on top of luggable

The Kaypro II

Compaq

Zenith laptop

 Zenith helped establish the clamshell laptop design with the ZWL series of laptops, which also signaled a change from CP/M based machines to DOS.  A large “crystal blue” screen replaced the tiny screens of the luggables.  I had one of these, too.  Still kinda heavy.

The Atari 400 was an early popular computer from the gaming company.  The cartridges slid under a metal shield (above) to protect users from radio emissions

The Commodore 64, selling at $200, was one of the least expensive and best selling computers

The TRS-80 (a/k/a “Trash 80”) sold by Radio Shack (TRS = Tandy Radio Shack) was immensely popular.  Shown here, the Model 1 with a casette tape for storage.  Later models used “stringy floppy” casettes made by Exatron, but were quickly replaced with  8” floppy disks.

Heathkit, a popular kit builder, developed the Heathkit Microprocessor Trainer.  You could build the computer and create hard-wired modifications.

Not many people were aware that Timex made computers for a short while.  Here, the Timex Sinclair 1000, shown with the optional 16K expansion pack.

CPR machine

Looks a little like this CPR machine, doesn’t it?

Just to round out the pack, the original Macintosh (1984), now mostly used for toilet paper holders and fishbowls. There were only about 200 Apple I computers ever created, all hand-built by co-founder Steve Wozniak, originally sold for about $666.  If you knew that a rare functioning version was sold at auction in 2013 for $671,000, you might have held on to it, right?   At a 2012 auction, a memo written by Steve Jobs when he worked for Atari at 19 also went for $27,500.  Who knew?

Apple computers

Circa 1984:  Side-by-side, IBM PC, Apple Mac & Apple Lisa (which was made for only one year, 1983, named after Steve Jobs’s first daughter, and not “Local Integrated System Architecture” or “LISA: Invented Stupid Acronym)

There are others, of course:  Remember the Franklin Ace, Texas Instruments, Xerox Alto (arguably the first Personal Computer), Scelbi-8H (built around the first Intel 8-bit processor), Mattel Aquarius, Apple II?

Steven Stengel has posted a web gallery showcasing about 100 early machines from his vintage computer collection as well as a time-line of early computers and other useful facts Go to www.oldcomputers.net  Some of the more interesting ones:  MSAI 8080 (one of the first consumer computers); IBM 5100 Portable (possibly the world’s first); SOL-20 (possibly named for the “Wisdom of Solomon”);  Rockwell AIM 65; Vector 1; Commodore PET; Heathkit H-8 & H89; Exidy Sorcerer Dynasty smart-ALEC; Ohio Scientific Challenger 4P; Interact Model One; Bell & Howell (yep, those folks); SwTPC S/09; and Texas Instruments TI-99/4.  Some of these were barely produced, but nevertheless interesting.

For more antique computer equipment, see the definitions at punchcard, mouse, tip & ring, and elsewhere.

CREDIT, in part, to TechRepublic for photos.

So...Who actually invented the FIRST computer?  The short answer: No one.  There was no first computer.  Computers are a process, constantly evolving.  Let’s take a stroll down memory lane...

Well (not to sound like a lawyer) it depends on how you define computer.  For example, back in 2700 - 2300 B.C. the Sumerians invented the abacus, a handheld “machine” (still in existence today) which uses beads set into tables of successive columns  which are then used to delimit successive orders of magnitude of their sexadecimal (base-60) number system.  It was mechanical, not electric or electronic. Shortly after that, some 2,100 years ago, the Greeks invented the Antikytheria Mechanism, an extremely complex machine (run by a hand crank) which calculated the passage of time and movements of celestial bodies with great precision, arguably the first analog computer.   [You just had to ask.]

Next came electronic machines such as the Victor calculator and the Monroe, an advanced programmable calculator which had a carriage like a typewriter, capable of solving simple equations [see below].  After that, the TI programmable calculators.  And, in 1965, the Programma1, an Italian supercalculator of sorts, which many also  considered the first desktop computer.

Subsequently, computers evolved in the 1940s into electronic and electro-mechanical machines which did more than just add and subtract - they performed mathematical calculations and other actions that were generally far too time consuming or complex for humans. The first programmable computer was Charles Babbage’s Analytical Machine.  Westinghouse claims to have built the world’s first electric-powered computer in 1913 to transmit messages from the rail line to central command at Grand Central in a hidden room called M-42. (You know, the one Hitler tried to infiltrate by destroying the rotary converters which converted alternating current to direct, as trains were used to move troops.) The coded messages were printed out via ticker tape, and agents would use a wooden switchboard to call the operations department to let them know about switch problems or a stalled train.

Then came the age of the “big iron” machines.  Perhaps the ENIAC (short for Electronic Numerical Integrator And Calculator) was the first general-purpose, electronic computer.   It was a Turing-complete digital computer capable of being reprogrammed to solve a full range of computing problems.  ENIAC was originally designed to calculate artillery firing tables for the U.S. Army's Ballistic Research laboratory, but its first actual use was in calculations for the hydrogen bomb.  When ENIAC was announced in 1946 it was heralded in the press as the "Giant Brain".   It boasted speeds one thousand.  (Although, once it was turned off, it lost the data.)  But it was huge, taking up its own building at 30 tons and 18,000 vacuum tubes.  (Click HERE for more info.)  About the same time, in 1943 the Brits at Bletchley Park built the Heath Robinson machine (named after a cartoon character who designed fantastic contraptions) and shortly thereafter the much-more-reliable Colossus (which read perforated paper tape to process information electro-mechanically), both of which helped in the WW2 war effort.  Later, there was the pre-binary code Harwell Dekatron Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computation (a/k/a “WITCH”), a 2.5 ton machine built in the 1950s used at the time for atomic research, mothballed in 1973 as binary code computers took over.  The machine, which sounded like a noisy typewriter, stored up to 40 8-digit numbers (about as much as a pocket calculator) using 40 banks of 8 Dekatron valves (which looked like flashing Christmas light bulbs) and took about 5-10 seconds just to multiply just two numbers! The programs and data were entered using punched strips of tape (see photo). About the same time as ENIAC, the Brits also built EDSAC (Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator) at the University of Cambridge, where it aided research into areas such a genetics, meteorology and X-ray crystallography.  It’s design was later used to help create LEO, allegedly the world’s first business computer.  I guess everyone wants to be first and, with no real definition for a computer, that title is up for grabs.

Moving forward, modern computers don’t take up an entire building,  ushering in the age of far smaller hardware.  And more reliable, as well.  The old vacuum tube computers could be down half the time because every day some tubes burned out, taking with them the stored data when the computer went down, but the invention of transistors solved this problem.  In this sense, the first “electronic” computer was actually invented back in 1973 by John Atanasoff and it was a scientific, not a personal computer [see below].  This according to the U.S. court system as documented in the book “The Man Who Invented the Computer” by Jane Smiley (2010).

 Over the next forty years, the computer steadily got smaller and more powerful, reaching the age of the PC (“Personal Computer”) in the 1980s.  [In the 1960s, DEC introduced the first “compact” computer, but it was priced at $125,000 without any software or peripherals, so we’re discounting that one.)  At that point, “embedded” computers like those used in cars and appliances (the “IoT”) also appeared en mass.  There are lots of claims to the inventor of the first PC.  Contrary to popular belief, the PC was not invented by Bill Gates (who invented Windows, a graphic software interface which made computers easier to use) or Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (1976) (who invented the first true “personal” computer, which used a mouse and a graphic user interface (“GUI”) to make the entire process easier to use for non-scientists), although some have credited them.  Also credited have been the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center’s ALTO computer (3/1/73; with mouse-driven graphic interface & movable overlapping “windows” bitmap graphics), Aegis (1981; with the Domain/OS, later DM [“display manager”]) and even IBM (1991).  Many more people credit H. Edward Roberts, a mentor of Bill Gates, who wrote the BASIC programming language which actually ran the Altair (1975).  The actual patent for a PC was issued in the U.S. on July 25, 1972 to Jack Frassanito, who in 1968 invented a self-contained unit with its own processor, display, keyboard, internal memory and mass storage of data.  It was named the Datapoint 2200, cost about $5000 and had up to 8,000 bytes of internal storage with another 300,000 bytes on 2 cassette tapes. 

  In the 2000s, computers became even smaller, as “smart” cellular phones such as the iPhone and the Droid allowed the installation of various downloadable “apps,” actually tiny programs, which used to be executed on full-scale computers, now used over the Internet and shared with other cell phone users.  Of course, following the rule that as a device becomes smaller it also becomes more costly, smart phones have gone up in price from about $150 to close to $1000.  All this, while the costs of desktops have fallen drastically:  For example, as discussed above the Programma1 cost $3500 (about $24,000 today), the top end IBM Portable cost $19,975 ($88,000 today), the Apple Lisa cost $9,975 in 1983 ($24,000 today), the Osborne at $2800 in 1985 ($6,200 today), the Macintosh portable at $6500 in 1989 ($12,500 today), even a 1999 Dell Dimension tower at $2,300 ( $3,400 today).

Presently, computers are moving toward “neural” machines using quantum technology, which mimic the human brain and have virtually billions of microprocessors built into silicon semiconductor chips.  See Computers.

CONCLUSION: In short, it all depends on what you define as a computer.  Manual/Electronic/electric/electromechanical/digital?  Business/General Purpose/Scientific/Government?   U.S./British/other?  Tubes/transistors/Graphene/Silicon? Paper Tape/Hollerith Cards/Keyboards?  Speeds?  Drive Storage?  Everyone has a claim to fame!  And, even then, there’s no agreement.  After I researched this, I found an even more subdivided series of definitions HERE.

  For more milestones, see below:

Abacus

Abacus

Antikythera

Antikytheria

Calculator

Victor calculator

TI programmable calculator

TI calculator

Programma1

Programma1 Credit: InfoWorld

grand central computer 2

Grand Central Computer

Analytical Engine
Eniac

ENIAC

WITCH COMPUTER

“Witch”

First computer 2

John Atanasoff

Apple McIntosh thyumbnail

Apple Mac

Alto computer

Alto

datapoint-2200

Datapoint 2200

iphone

Apple iPhone

first computer0001

CREDIT:  Bloomberg Business Week, 10/2010, p. 101-102

First computer 2

^ John Atanasoff with his ABC computer

H._Edward_Roberts1

< H. Edward Roberts, who created the MITS Altair, the first inexpensive general purpose microcomputer in the mid-1970s is also sometimes considered the inventor of the personal computer.  The Altair used the first Intel 8008 chip, which wasn’t yet ready for the Datapoint 2200 (above).  [History of Modern Computing, MIT Press, 1998, by Paul E. Ceruzzi, technology historian at the Smithsonian Institution.]

 I remember the Monroe.  It was billed as some sort of formula calculator.  I used to see it sitting in various accounting offices in the 60s and 70s.   Never could figure out exactly what it did, but I remember it:

Monroe Calculator ad
Monroe Calculator
mINITEL

 And don’t forget France’s Minitel, the precursor for the Internet, a combination of a telephone and computer screen, which debuted in 1982

Polaroid camera

Polaroid Cameras - Unnecessary now that we have smart phones, photo printers and Instagram

Walkman

Walkman -Replaced by the iPod - Also Diskman and CDs

Microfiche

Microfiche-Used to be common in offices & libraries

Pager Photo

Pagers - Unnecessary now that we have cell & smart phones

Palm Pilot

PDAs -Like the Palm Pilot, again replaced by smart phones that do all that AND make phone calls

FLOPPY DISK
VCR

VCRs -Replaced by DVD players and DVRs

Telephone switchboard3

FLOPPY DISKS & CDs- ALL SIZES - REPLACED BY FLASH DRIVES AND DVDs [See Media]

Is this the party to whom I'm speaking

Telephone switchboards -Used to be common in offices - replaced by PBX & VoIP. Famously spoofed by Lily Tomlin as Ernestine, click HERE for the YouTube video

office_intercoms

Office Intercoms, replaced by digital telephone systems

Teletype machine

Teletype Machines -Replaced by fax, e-mails, texting

Manual Typewriter

Manual Typewriters - gradually replaced by word processors and computers

WHAT IS THE MOST POWERFUL COMPUTER ON THE PLANET TODAY?

According to the semi-annual “Top500 Supercomputer List” published by Advanced two times a year since 1993, the current No. 1 spot is now held by Chinaq’s Sunway Taihu Light (over 10 million processor cores, tripling at 93 petaflops at 6051 megaflops per watt last year’s top supercomputer, the Tianhe-2 (“MilkyWay-2”), also by China.    Click HERE to view the entire list.  While the Chinese are rapidly pulling ahead in the supercomputing field, most of the chips are made by Intel and many other countries are still quite competitive.  The Gini score is 0.6.  See also, exascale computing, FLOPS, supercomputers, Linpak benchmark.

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