A Brief History of Computing
- Early non-mechanical computers

© Copyright 1996-2005, Stephen White

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1937 George Stibitz (c.1910-) of the Bell Telephone Laboratories (Bell Labs), New York City, constructs a demonstration 1-bit binary adder using relays. This is one of the first binary computers, although at this stage it was only a demonstration machine improvements continued leading to the 'complex number calculator' of Jan. 1940.
1939 - November John V. Atanasoff (1903-) and graduate student Clifford Berry (?-1963), of Iowa State College (now the Iowa State University), Ames, Iowa, complete a prototype 16-bit adder. This is the first machine to calculate using vacuum tubes.
1939/1940 Schreyer completes a prototype 10-bit adder using vacuum tubes, and a prototype memory using neon lamps.
1940 - January At Bell Labs, Samuel Williams and Stibitz complete a calculator which can operate on complex numbers, and give it the imaginative name of the "Complex Number Calculator"; it is later known as the "Model I Relay Calculator". It uses telephone switching parts for logic: 450 relays and 10 crossbar switches. Numbers are represented in "plus 3 BCD"; that is, for each decimal digit, 0 is represented by binary 0011, 1 by 0100, and so on up to 1100 for 9; this scheme requires fewer relays than straight BCD. Rather than requiring users to come to the machine to use it, the calculator is provided with three remote keyboards, at various places in the building, in the form of teletypes. Only one can be used at a time, and the output is automatically displayed on the same one. In September 1940, a teletype is set up at a mathematical conference in Hanover, New Hampshire, with a connection to New York, and those attending the conference can use the machine remotely.
1941 - Summer Atanasoff and Berry complete a special-purpose calculator for solving systems of simultaneous linear equations, later called the "ABC" ("Atanasoff-Berry Computer"). This has 60 50-bit words of memory in the form of capacitors (with refresh circuits -- the first regenerative memory) mounted on two revolving drums. The clock speed is 60 Hz, and an addition takes 1 second. For secondary memory it uses punch cards, moved around by the user. The holes are not actually punched in the cards, but burned. The punch card system's error rate is never reduced beyond 0.001%, and this isn't really good enough. (Atanasoff will leave Iowa State after the US enters the war, and this will end his work on digital computing machines.)
1941 - December Now working with limited backing from the DVL (German Aero- nautical Research Institute), Zuse completes the "V3" (later "Z3"): the first operational programmable calculator. It works with floating point numbers having a 7-bit exponent, 14-bit mantissa (with a "1" bit automatically prefixed unless the number is 0), and a sign bit. The memory holds 64 of these words and therefore requires over 1400 relays; there are 1200 more in the arithmetic and control units. The program, input, and output are implemented as described above for the Z1. Conditional jumps are not available. The machine can do 3-4 additions per second, and takes 3-5 seconds for a multiplication. It is a marginal decision whether to call the Z3 a prototype; with its small memory it is certainly not very useful on the equation- solving problems that the DVL was mostly interested in.
1943 - April

Max Newman, Wynn-Williams, and their team (including Alan Turing) at the secret Government Code and Cypher School ('Station X'), Bletchley Park, Bletchley, England, complete the "Heath Robinson". This is a specialized machine for cipher-breaking, not a general-purpose calculator or computer but some sort of logic device, using a combination of electronics and relay logic. It reads data optically at 2000 characters per second from 2 closed loops of paper tape, each typically about 1000 characters long. It was significant since it was the fore-runner of Colossus, see December 1943.

Newman knew Turing from Cambridge (Turing was a student of Newman's.), and had been the first person to see a draft of Turing's 1937 paper.

Heath Robinson is the name of a British cartoonist known for drawings of comical machines, like the American Rube Goldberg. Two later machines in the series will be named after London stores with "Robinson" in their names.

1943 - September Williams and Stibitz complete the "Relay Interpolator", later called the "Model II Relay Calculator". This is a programmable calculator; again, the program and data are read from paper tapes. An innovative feature is that, for greater reliability, numbers are represented in a biquinary format using 7 relays for each digit, of which exactly 2 should be "on": 01 00001 for 0, 01 00010 for 1, and so on up to 10 10000 for 9. Some of the later machines in this series will use the biquinary notation for the digits of floating-point numbers.)

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