Saturday, September 19, 2009

Origins of the digital computer

I'm finished writing Consommation et technologie (Consumption and technology); the book will be published this fall before Montreal's book fair. I now have a little more time for my blog's column which I hope to resume presenting more regularly.

In my last regular column, Sunday July 19, I've begun exploring the origins of the computer, presenting the analog calculator. Let’s pursue with the digital computer.

Most people consider the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer) to be the first digital, electronic programmable computer. Conceived by engineers John Mauchly and Presper Eckert assisted by mathematician John von Neumann, this 30 ton monster used 18,000 vacuum tubes; its design was funded by the U.S. military who wanted to use it to calculate ballistic firing tables (P. Breton et S. Proulx, L’Explosion de la communication, La naissance d’une nouvelle idéologie, 3e édition, Montréal, Les éditions du Boréal, 1994, p. 87). The two engineers later leave University of Pennsylvania and join to form the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation; by lack of sufficient funds, the company will not succeed in commercially exploiting the concepts developed with ENIAC. The honor of producing the first commercial computer is bestowed to Remington Rand; the company acquires Eckert-Mauchly Computer in 1950 and produces the first line of business computers, the UNIVAC series.

During World War II, IBM also works on the design of a computer in collaboration with Harvard University. In 1946 it produces the Mark I, a much smaller computer; it weighs only 5 tons. At about the same time as Remington Rand, 1n 1952, IBM also launches a commercial computer, the IBM 701.

These events mark the beginning of a digital revolution that will transform methods of production and business management before spreading to the private sphere and weave around the world a communications network that allowed the emergence of the online social networks we know today. In the book I will soon present, I explore the different facets of this major transformation of our world.