An introduction to computers—or, what a computer really is

25.02.2016 |

Episode #1 of the course Brief history of computers by Sudeshna Das

 

Computers are almost as much a part of our daily lives as food. We have our eyes on a screen from the moment we wake up (hello, wake-up alarms!), throughout the day (“Did you check my Instagram post?”), and perhaps even as the last thing we see before we fall asleep (Inbox: 1234 unread).

These machines that help us connect, share, and calculate are an important modern inventionor are they?

Welcome to A Brief History of Computers!

Before we begin our journey into the evolution of computers, let us first get to know what a computer really is.

From the word “computer” itself, we can deduce that it means “something or someone that computes.” So, in simple terms, a computer is anything or anyone that does calculations.

But wait! That can’t be right, can it? I mean, you calculated the total number of calories in half the doughnut you ate yesterday. So, does that make you a computer?

Actually, it does.

The earliest computers were human beings. Yep, all flesh and bones. So does that mean your great-aunt Jenny who used to count the number of teeth she had left was a computer? You bet! And does that include people who lived 30,000 years ago who made marks on a bone to count? You sure are catching on fast!

But that is not what computers are, you say. Computers are supposed to calculate the orbital distance of Uranus, the value of pi till the one hundred millionth place after the decimal, and the number of single people in your neighborhood who would like to go out for coffee with you.

Well, yes and no. Computers today can perform these tasks with as much ease as great-aunt Jenny declaring for the hundredth time that she has exactly five teeth left. But these super powerful gadgets had humble beginnings.

I think that by now you can probably wrap your mind around the fact that computers have been in existence ever since counting began. And as history tells us, human beings have been counting for at least the past 35,000 years. In fact, we use the term “digit” for numbers. What else do we use the same word for? Our fingers, on which we count!

I’ll leave you to digest the fact that the device on which you are reading this email has ancestors going back in time for almost as long as you do.

Tomorrow, we’ll learn about computers that were before “computers.”

Thanks, and have a great day ahead!

 

Recommended book

“A History of Modern Computing” by Paul E. Ceruzzi

 

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