An Abacus is a simple device for performing arithmetic calculations and therefore is the ancestor of the
modern calculating machine and computer. It is basically a calculating device, probably of Babylonian origin, sometime
between 1,000 BC and 500 BC, (although some pundits are of the opinion that it was actually invented by the Chinese)
that was long important in commerce.
The word abacus comes to us by way of Latin as a mutation of the Greek word abax. In turn, the Greeks may have
adopted the Phoenician word abak, meaning "sand", although some authorities lean toward the Hebrew word
abhaq, meaning "dust."
Irrespective of the source, the original concept referred to a flat stone covered with sand (or dust) into which numeric
symbols were drawn. The first abacus was almost certainly based on such a stone, with pebbles being placed on
lines drawn in the sand. Over time the stone was replaced by a wooden frame supporting thin sticks, braided hair,
or leather thongs, onto which clay beads or pebbles with holes were threaded.
A variety of different types of abacus were developed, but the most popular became those based on the bi-quinary
system, which utilizes a combination of two bases (base-2 and base-5) to represent decimal numbers. Although the
abacus does not qualify as a mechanical calculator, it certainly stands proud as one of first mechanical aids to calculation.
The type of abacus now best known is represented by a frame with sliding counters. Ten parallel wires
strung between two boards on a frame, with nine beads on each wire.
Egyptians and Romans
One of the methods that the Egyptians used to measure time was the water clock,
or Clepsydra, which consisted of a container of water with a small hole in the bottom through which the water
escaped. Units of time were marked on the side of the container, and the length of the units corresponding to
day and night could be adjusted by varying the distance between the markings or by modifying the shape of
the container; for example, by having the top wider than the bottom
Actually, it's easy for us to rest on our laurels and smugly criticize ideas of the past
with the benefit of hindsight (the one exact science), but the Egyptians were certainly not alone.
As an example we might consider Roman numerals, in which I = 1, V = 5, X = 10, L = 50, C = 100, D = 500,
M = 1,000, and so forth. Now try to multiply CCLXV by XXXVIII as quickly as you can. In fact Roman numerals
were used extensively in England until the middle of the 17th century, and are still used to some extent to
this day; for example, the copyright notice on films and television programs often indicates the year in Roman
1st Century BC
The Antikythera mechanism, used for registering and predicting the motion of
the stars and planets, is dated to the first century B.C.
Very little indeed, is known about ancient celestial navigation, besides
indisputable proof that it did, in fact, occur. It is worth
noting, however, that the man who invented trigonometry and first
scientifically catalogued the stars' positions was Hipparchus of
Rhodes. More than one ancient system of latitude and longitude the meridians
crossed at Rhodes and that Poseidonius's travels and mechanisms found support
at the same place where Geminus did his writings--and inspired or
built the Antikythera mechanism.
Around 76 B.C., the intricate astronomical computer was lost with
the rest of a treasure-ship's cargo. It was discovered
off the coast of Greece in 1901. Derek De Solla Price analyzed and published its construction
and nature decades after its recovery, however since his "Gears from the Greeks" in 1975,
little attention has been paid to our most exciting relic of advanced
ancient technology. See The Antikythera Mechanism's Implications for detail.
200 AD Binary numbers
The earliest known use of a binary (two digit code) numbering system dates back to 2nd
century Southern India. Pingala's Chhandahshastra used binary numbers to
classify musical meters. Pingala formed a matrix in order to give a unique value
to each meter, but wrote from left to right, instead of right to left, as binary
is written today. For example, the
decimal number 5, which is equivalent to 0100, would be written 0010, which is
actually equivalent to 2 by today's binary number system. Pingala started his
representations with 1 instead of 0, like today's system. These are very
important for our interpretation. No matter where the origin of binary numbers
comes from, we can not ignore them. Morse code consists of groups of dots and dashes which represents letters of the
alphabet in another two-symbol code, and binary forms the basis of all computer programming.
1500 Leonardo Da
references cite the French mathematician, physicist, and theologian, Blaise
Pascal as being credited with the invention of the first operational calculating
machine called the Arithmetic Machine However, it now appears that the first
mechanical calculator may have been conceived by Leonardo da Vinci almost one
hundred and fifty years earlier than Pascal's machine
A genius: painter, musician, sculptor, architect, engineer, and so
on. However, his contributions to mechanical calculation remained hidden until
the rediscovery of two of his notebooks in 1967. These notebooks, which date
from sometime around the 1500s, contained drawings of a mechanical calculator,
and working models of da Vinci's device have since been constructed
Wilhelm Schickard builds the first mechanical calculator in 1623. It
can work with six digits, and carries digits across columns. It works, but never
makes it beyond the prototype stage. Schickard is a professor at the University
of Tubingen, Germany.
1614 John Napier and Logarithms
John Napier was a Scottish mathematician and theologian. He is chiefly remembered for introducing
into mathematics. Logs allow multiplication and division to be reduced to
addition and subtraction. After travelling the continent Napier began his mathematical work in 1573 by attempting to systemise
algebraic knowledge. His desire to abolish the drudgery of calculation resulted in the invention of
logarithms in 1649. More detail here>>.
My thanks again to Graham Kirby for the notes and pictures
for this entry.
1644 The Pascaline
Blaise Pascal was a French
mathematician, physicist, philosopher, inventor who was educated by his father
Etienne, who was the presiding judge of the tax court. At the age of 11 Blaise had calculated for himself the first 23
propositions of Euclid, and at 16 he published a paper on solid geometry.
Between 1642 and 1644 Pascal invented the
Pascaline to help his father in tax computations. The Pascaline was the first
significant calculating machine. The numbers to be added together are dialled in
via the row of numbered wheels at the bottom, and the result shows at the top.
The machine was also capable of subtraction. It has the capacity for eight
digits, but has trouble carrying and its gears tend to jam.
(may be slow loading). My thanks again to Graham Kirby
for the notes and pictures for this entry.
1679 Leibnitz Calculator
Leibnitz (1646-1716) first discussed binary in the West. He was a German mathematician looking for a way to represent all logical
thought through a universal mathematical language. Binary numbers represented opposites for Leibniz, such as black
white, or yes vs. no. He introduced the idea in "De Arte Combinatoria" (On the Art
constructed an improved version of the Pascaline. He argued that all reasoning is
an ordered combination of elements. This is an important factor in computer science theory. In 1679 he perfected
the binary system of notation which is essential to the development of computers.
The Leibnitz calculator was used for addition with numbered wheels for input, and a second set at right angles for
output. For multiplication the same wheels were used but with a different mechanism. The vital component was the
stepped wheel. This was a cylindrical drum containing nine teeth of varying length. The mechanism was driven by
a handle. Division was performed by operating the same mechanism in reverse.
(may be slow loading). My thanks again to Graham Kirby
for the notes and pictures for this entry.
1801 The punch card
One of the fundamentals of computing was developed during the Industrial
Revolution by a Frenchman named Joseph Jacquard. He perfected the first punch
card machine - a loom capable of weaving pictures into cloth to match a set of
commands on the cards. When Jacquard introduced his machine, he faced a
suspicious public and was physically attacked in Lyon, where his machine was
With his punched cards, the Frenchman had effectively found a way of
communicating with machines. The language was limited to two commands: hole and
no hole, but the binary system is universal in all modern day machines. Later,
the system launched technology in the US and saw
the birth of International Business Machines
Herman Hollerith devised a system of encoding data on cards through a
series of punched holes. Hollerith's machine - used in the 1890 US census - read
the cards by passing them through electrical contacts. Closed circuits
indicating hole positions could then be selected and counted. His Tabulating
Machine Company of 1896 was a predecessor to IBM. The system was so useful for
mundane, repetitive jobs that it was widely accepted and spread to Europe, where
IBM marked its darkest moment by supplying Hitler with a method of tracking the
progress of his genocide.
Babbage's Difference Engine
In the early 19th century, the process of generating mathematical tables, such
as logarithms, was handed to large teams of people performing calculations
manually - a process that took a very long time. Due to the fact that these
people were employed solely to compute tables, they became known as computers,
a term that remained a job description into the 1940s. However, to speed this
computational process up, British mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage
proposed that a machine, called The Difference Engine, be created to
specifically perform these tasks.
He presented a model to the Royal Astronomical Society in 1821. Its purpose was to tabulate polynomials using a
numerical method called the differences method (hence the difference
machine). The Society approved the idea, and this in turn enabled him to get
a grant of £1500 by the British Government in 1823. This essentially led
to the design of a mechanical 'Computer', which used a series of gears to
calculate numbers using the mathematical method of differences. Construction
started on this machine,
Things went wrong. First he fell out with his engineer Joseph Clement. He
accused him of overcharging and he walked out on Babbage. The internal friction and gearing available at the time were not good enough for the models to be
completed plus vibrations were a constant problem. Then he kept changing his mind about the design of the machine building a bigger one called the
Difference Engine 2 before completing the first engine.
By 1833 he ran out of money after £17000 had been spent with no satisfactory result.
Babbage later revised his plans
in a design covering an incredible 1,000 square feet of paper, but despite the
intricacy of planning, the government decided against building it. Robert Peel
sarcastically said "if the machine were ever to be built is should be set to
calculate its own usefulness".
A picture with more detail,
thanks to Graham Kirby, can be found here>>
There is a great deal of information and a working model of the
Difference Engine (built in 1991 to celebrate the centenary of Babbage's
death), in the Science Museum in London.
1834 The Analytical Engine
While the Difference Engine was considered a breakthrough in the
development of automatic computing devices, Babbage's next idea - the
Analytical Engine - was far more influential. This new device was more
comparable to the computers of today.
This was the Analytical Engine.
The design was based on Joseph Marie Jacquard's sewing loom, which used punched cards to determine how a sewing design would be
carried out. Babbage adapted this design so that it would create mathematical actions instead.
The Analytical Engine had input devices based on punched cards, as per Jacquard's design, an arithmetic processor that calculated numbers, a control unit that determined that the correct task was carried out, an output mechanism and a memory where numbers could be stored whilst waiting their turn to be processed. It was this device that was the world's first computer. A concrete design for this emerged by 1835; however, because of his failures involving the Difference Engine, the engine was never built. In 1842, following repeated failures to obtain funding from the First Lord of the Treasury, Babbage approached Sir Robert Peel for funding. Peel refused, and offered Babbage a knighthood instead. This was refused in turn by Babbage. Matters came to a halt at this point
and the machine remained on paper.
Babbage then worked with a brilliant mathematician named
Lovelace, daughter of the poet Lord Byron, who created a program for the Engine
and is now credited as being the first ever computer programmer. She describes
the Analytical Engine as weaving "algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom
weaves flowers and leaves. Her published analysis of the Analytical Engine is
our best record of its programming potential. In it she outlines the
fundamentals of computer programming, including data analysis, looping and
here is a great deal of information and a working model of the
Difference Engine in the Science Museum in London.
1837 The Telegraph
In 1837, the American inventor Samuel Finley Breese Morse developed
the first American electric telegraph, which was based on simple patterns of
"dots" and "dashes" called Morse Code being transmitted over a single wire.
The telegraph quickly proliferated thanks to the relative
simplicity of Morse's system. However, a problem soon arose in that operators
could only transmit around ten words a minute, which meant that they couldn't
keep up with the public's seemingly insatiable desire to send messages to each
other. This was a classic example of a communications bottleneck.
Thus, in 1857, only twenty years after the invention of the
telegraph, Sir Charles Wheatstone (the inventor of the taccordion) introduced
the first application of paper tapes as a medium for the preparation, storage,
and transmission of data.
Charles' paper tape used two rows of holes to represent Morse's dots and
dashes. Outgoing messages could be prepared off-line on paper tape and
By 1858, a Morse paper tape transmitter could operate at 100 words
a minute. Unsuspectingly, Sir Charles had also provided the American public
with a way to honor their heroes and generally have a jolly good time, because
used paper tapes were to eventually become a key feature of so-called
1844 Morse messages
There is Samuel B. Morse and the first telegram. Delivered on May 24, 1844,
the message read "What hath god wrought!" Morse knew that he was making history.
1854 Boolean logic
until the 19th century that binary numbering was fully realised in a
mathematical system by George Boole, a British mathematician. His
groundbreaking paper of 1854, An investigation into the Laws of Thought, on
Which are founded the Mathematical Theories of Logic and probabilities,
introduced the idea of Boolean logic.
In 1867, Charles Sanders Pierce introduces Boolean algebra to the United States and
In 1940, American mathematician and electrical engineer
Shannon used Boolean logic to analyse and optimise relay-switching circuits in
his Master's thesis for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, A Symbolic
Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits. This is widely viewed as one of the
original works of American computer science.
1855 George Schuetz
A Swiss named George Schuetz successfully built a model of the Difference Engine. It had been based on a 1834 design by Babbage. Babbage was amongst those who inspected it and gave a positive opinion. In 1859, the British Government purchased one of these for use in the Registrar General's Office. The purchase had no effect on the refusals to build an analytical engine.
Partly through Babbage's efforts at gear making for these machines, the British had superior machinery for the next few decades, and this contributed to the superiority of the British navy in the first world war.
1856 Undersea cabling
Still essential to the way we communicate, undersea cabling dates back
to the age of steam. Work on the first cross-pond cable began in 1856, but the
first attempt at connecting the two ends in the middle saw them sink without
1865 the transatlantic cable was laid again but broke after three weeks, what was needed
was a new better cable but no ship in the world was
big enough to carry this cable except the Great Eastern designed and built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
The Atlantic Telegraph Company chartered the SS Great Eastern to accomplished this, large areas of her
interior were taken out to accommodate the cable needed. Great Eastern started laying
the cable at Ireland but half way the cable broke and the crew
of the Great Eastern gave up. It wasn't until the next year the Great Eastern
tried again ending with success of laying the cable.
1869 the French government chartered
her to lay another transatlantic cable that ended in success.
within 20 years several thousand miles of undersea cable
linked the world, forming the backbone of the communications network. All
intercontinental telegraphic communications data used this method, speeding up
the transfer of news from weeks to seconds.
The telegraph brought changes that surpassed those of the telephone
or those of the present Internet revolution. The telegraph was the quantum leap
of communication's speed.
Today's cables are a light year away from those early attempts, but
many of the basic principles remain the same. Dual pipes such as FLAG Telecom
and Global Tele Systems' FA-1 connect London Paris and New York at speeds of
2.4terabits/sec in each direction. This capacity can carry over 200 hours of
digital video per second, 30 million clear voice channels, or over two trillion
bits of IP or data traffic per second. More information on the great steamship
SS Great Eastern can
be found here>>
1868 Qwerty Keyboards
This photo is a
QWERTY keyboard, not all that different from the keyboard under your fingers on
your computer today. However the one you see in the picture is 122 YEARS OLD!
The QWERTY keyboard, was present on
very First Typewriter. Despite more than a century of efforts to dislodge
it. It is commonly believed that the original layout of keys on a typewriter
was intended to slow the typist down, but this isn't strictly true. The main
inventor of the first commercial typewriter, Christopher Latham Sholes,
obviously wished to make their typewriters as fast as possible in order to
convince people to use them. However, one problem with the first machines was
that the keys jammed when the operator typed at any real speed, so Sholes
invented what was to become known as the Sholes keyboard.
What Sholes attempted to do was to separate the letters of as many common
digraphs as possible. But in addition to being a pain to use, the resulting
layout also left something to be desired on the digraph front; for example,
"ed", "er", "th", and "tr" all use keys that are close to each other.
Unfortunately, even after the jamming problem was overcome by the use of
springs, the monster was loose amongst us -- existing users didn't want to
change and there was no turning back.
The original Sholes keyboard (which is known to us as the QWERTY
keyboard, because of the ordering of the first six keys in the third row) is
interesting for at least two other reasons: first, there was no key for the
number '1', because the inventors decided that the users could get by with the
letter 'I'; and second, there was no shift key, because the first typewriters
could only type upper case letters. (Sholes also craftily ensured that the word
" Typewriter" could be constructed using only the top row of letters. This was
intended to aid salesmen when they were giving demonstrations.) (Nothing's
simple in this world. For example, instead of the top row of characters saying
QWERTY, keyboards in France and Germany spell out AZERTY and QWERTZU,
Speaking of which, the figure left shows the 'A', 'S', 'D', and 'F' keys
in white to indicate that these are the home keys for the left hand. Similarly,
the other four keys shown in white are the home keys for the right hand. The
terms home keys and home row refer to the base position for your fingers
(excluding thumbs, which are used to hit the space bar) when you're practicing
touch typing, which means that you type by touch without looking at the
Sholes didn't invent these terms, because he actually gave very
little thought to the way in which people would use his invention. The end
result was that everyone was left to their own devices, effectively meaning
that two-fingered typists using the "hunt-and-peck" method ruled the world. It
was not until 1888 that a law clerk named Frank E. McGurrin won a highly
publicized typing contest with his self-taught touch-typing technique, and a
new era was born. .. QWERTY survives. It is the keyboard people LOVE to hate,
but it is as much a cultural standard as the Roman alphabet, the steering
wheel, or the 4x3 TV screen
1869 Jeavons logical
machine was notable because it was the first machine that could solve a
logical problem faster than that problem could be solved without using the
machine! Jevons was an aficionado of Boolean logic, and his solution was
something of a cross between a logical abacus and a piano (in fact it was
sometimes referred to as a "Logic Piano". This device, which was about 3 feet
tall, consisted of keys, levers, and pulleys, along with letters that could be
either visible or hidden. When the operator pressed keys representing logical
operations, the appropriate letters appeared to reveal the result.
1873 The Electric Motor
In 1873 the
first commercially successful DC motor was demonstrated in Vienna at an
exhibition by Zenobe Theophille Gamme, a Belgian electrical engineer. Even
considering the IT realm alone, we would be at a loss without the electric
motor. Despite the increase in the use of solid-state technology such as Flash
memory, this mechanical device continues to drive the industry. Without the
electric motor we wouldn't have the benefit of hard disk drives, DVD-ROM drives,
floppy drives and any other storage unit that requires angular velocity. The
electric motor has assisted in keeping electronics cool, which has become even
necessary in recent years. We now see more fans attached to more heat sinks than
ever before as processors and hard disks become operationally hotter and hotter.
1874 The first Typewriter
It was called the "Sholes & Glidden Type Writer," and it
was produced by the gun makers E. Remington & Sons in Ilion, New York from
1874-1878. It was not a great success (not more than 5,000 were sold), but
it founded a worldwide industry, and it brought mechanization to dreary,
time-consuming office work. See
very First Typewriter>>.
1876 Graham Bell
And there was the dawn of the telephone era, heralded by Alexander Graham
Bell's less grand, though still legendary, summons to his assistant on March 10,
1876: "Mr. Watson, come here; I want you."
1881 Allan Marquand.
The next real advance in logic machines was made in 1881, by means of
the ingenious use of rods, levers, and springs, Marquand extended
Jevons' work to produce the Marquand Logic Machine. Like Jevons'
device, Marquand's machine could only handle four variables, but it
was smaller and significantly more intuitive to use. (Following the
invention of his logic machine, Marquand abandoned logical pursuits to
become a professor of art and archeology at Princeton University.)
1883 Edison's light bulb
Edison's light bulbs employed a conducting filament mounted in a
glass bulb from which the air was evacuated leaving a vacuum. Passing
electricity through the filament caused it to heat up enough to become
incandescent and radiate light, while the vacuum prevented the
filament from oxidizing and burning up
In 1883 Edison continued to experiment with his light bulbs and found
that he could detect electrons flowing through the vacuum from the
lighted filament to a metal plate mounted inside the bulb. This
discovery subsequently became known as the Edison Effect.
An Austrian Botanist, Friedrich Reiniitzer discovered the liquid
crystal, but it wasn't until 1968 that scientists at the RCA group
developed the first display using the technology.
(the birth of LCD screens)
1892 Burroughs Calculator
William Seward Burroughs (1857-98) American inventor of adding and calculating machines, patented
in 1892 the first commercially successful adding machine. With Dorr E Felt, Burroughs pioneered the development of
adding machines by the provision for the first time of a full
keyboard. Burroughs unique contribution was the addition
of a printing device to record numbers and totals.
The company founded has now grown into one of the worlds major computer manufacturers.
Thanks to Graham Kirby for
supplying the illustrations. Picture
While the exact wording of Guglielmo Marconi's first wireless transmission in
1895 is not the stuff of legend, it didn't take long for Marconi to be heaped
with honours and awards, topped off by a Nobel Prize for physics in 1909. Even 30 years later the inauguration of wireless service between England and
South Africa felt like an historic event to the participants. "We speak across
time and space. . . . May the new power promote peace between all nations," read
the Marconi gram sent from Sir Edgar Walton, high commissioner of South Africa,
to General J. B. M. Hertzog, South Africa's prime minister, in 1924.