Monday, 25 January 2010

Mainframe history

We were talking about the history of the mainframe and how most of the sites on the Internet have a very US-based view. We were disappointed by the fact that quite a number of sites ignored the work of others, and we felt not enough was made of the impact of the wartime Colossus machine to the history of computing in general.

Now, you could write books about the history of computing, so I’m just going to fill in a major hole in the histories and shine a light into some of the darker corners.

During the WWII, the Germans had a complicated way of coding messages using Enigma machines, which could put a message into code in over 150 million million million different ways. The British code breakers, working mainly at Bletchley Park, had to try to decode these messages. By changing the rotors in their Enigma machines, the Germans could change the code daily.

Colossus was built by Tommy Flowers and his team of post office engineers in 1943. It could work at 5000 characters a second, four times faster than anything built before. The computer was 5 metres long, 3 metres deep, and 2.5 metres high, and worked by 'reading', through a photoelectric system, a teleprinter tape containing the letters of the coded message. It read 5,000 letters a second. The information was called Ultra.

Tommy and his team went on to further develop Colossus so it was even faster.

In addition, in 1941 Konrad Zuse, originally from Germany, produced the first programmable computer designed to solve complex engineering equations. The Z3 worked using binary.

UK-based J Lyons and Co, famous for their Lyons Corner Houses (cafes) developed LEO I (Lyons Electronic Office I) in 1951. It was the first computer used for commercial business applications. In 1954 Lyons formed LEO Computers Ltd to market LEO I and its successors LEO II and LEO III to other companies. LEO Computers eventually became part of English Electric Company (EELM) and then International Computers Limited (ICL).

Just a few of the developments illustrating that ENIAC wasn’t the only game in town.

The Centre for Computing History in Suffolk (UK) – – provides the light for those dark corners mentioned above. For example

1623, Wilhelm Schickard invented a calculating machine.
1646, Sir Thomas Browne coined the phrase ‘computer’.
1820,The Arithmometer was the first commercially successful mechanical calculator patented
1822, Charles Babbage takes first steps in the construction of machines that would compute numbers
1873, QWERTY keyboard invented
1888, Babbage's Analytical Engine operates for the first time
1889, Herman Hollerith lodges patent for Punch Card technology
1936, at Cambridge Alan Turing invented the principle of the modern computer
1937, Alan Turing Defines the Universal Machine
1938, Zuse Z1 built by Konrad Zuse
1941, Zuse Z3 machine completed
1945, Grace Hopper recorded the first actual computer "bug"
1948, The Manchester Baby, the world's first stored program computer, ran its first program
1951, LEO I computer became operational.

Of course you could go back even further and look at the history of mathematics to get to even the early stages.

Anyway, hopefully some cobwebs have been brushed away.

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