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Crossing the Divide: Architectural Issues and the Emergence of the Stored Program Computer, 1935-1955

IP.com Disclosure Number: IPCOM000129977D
Original Publication Date: 1997-Jan-01
Included in the Prior Art Database: 2005-Oct-07
Document File: 15 page(s) / 57K

Publishing Venue

Software Patent Institute

Related People

PAUL CERUZZI: AUTHOR [+2]

Abstract

Since 1950, the technology of calculation and data processing has advanced at a pace that must be considered rapid by any measure. Faced with that, historians of computing often believe they can do little more than chronicle each dramatic advance, each milestone that marks the passing of a certain threshold of computing "; power,"; usually defined as processing speed or memory capacity. Such listings are valuable but do little to aid one s understanding of the subject. Historians attempting to chronicle this era ";stand before the daunting complexity of a subject that has grown exponentially in size and variety, which looks not so much like an uncharted ocean as like a trackless jungle. We pace on the edge, pondering where to cut in.";

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Copyright ©; 1997 by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Crossing the Divide: Architectural Issues and the Emergence of the Stored Program Computer, 1935-1955

PAUL CERUZZI

The rapid advance of computing technology since the 1940s has created an impression that all that happened in computing before then was somehow mere prologue to the real history. According to this popular notion, the computer age began with the invention of machines that computed at electronic speeds, that were capable of automatic sequence control with conditional branching, and that stored their programs internally. The classification of computing into "generations" with the "first" generation being those with vacuum tubes further reinforces this notion. This paper looks at some examples of machines built in the 1930s and 1940s that straddle both ages: machines that had some sort of sequence control, partially electronic counting circuits, or primitive branching capabilities. In particular, I examine a few systems that reveal especially well the nature of this transition: the ensembles of punched card equipment used by L.J. Comrie and Wallace Eckert for scientific instead of business use, the "Aberdeen Relay Calculator" that IBM built for the U.S. Army; and the "Card Programmed Calculator" that Northrop Aircraft invented for engineering applications that IBM later marketed.

Introduction

Since 1950, the technology of calculation and data processing has advanced at a pace that must be considered rapid by any measure. Faced with that, historians of computing often believe they can do little more than chronicle each dramatic advance, each milestone that marks the passing of a certain threshold of computing " power," usually defined as processing speed or memory capacity. Such listings are valuable but do little to aid one s understanding of the subject. Historians attempting to chronicle this era "stand before the daunting complexity of a subject that has grown exponentially in size and variety, which looks not so much like an uncharted ocean as like a trackless jungle. We pace on the edge, pondering where to cut in."

The rapid pace of innovation after 1950 has also made it difficult to connect the history of modern computing with what happened before World War II. Interest in Charles Babbage, who tried but failed to build a "modern" computer (defined as having the design of post-1950 machines), is the exception that proves the rule. The familiar division of computing history into "generations." with the first one beginning with the UNIVAC in 1951, reinforces the notion that everything that happened before then was only prologue to the story. (The generational metaphor had been familiar among engineers before the invention of the computer. Informally, the classification of computer generations according to tubes, transistors, and inte...