A Question of Size: Small Computers for Single Users

Zuse Z11

After World War II, European land reforms to consolidate fragmented farmland plots required extensive geodetic calculations for which the relay-based Z11 was well suited. Some of the 48 units sold were exported to Eastern Bloc countries.

A Question of Size: Small Computers for Single Users

Most early computers were very big. And very expensive. Only government, military or large corporate customers could afford them. Smaller, cheaper computers had the potential to reach more buyers, and offered closer interaction with individual users. Yet many tasks were too complex for small machines.

Which side won the tug-of-war between big and small? Both—depending on the specific needs and situation.

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Elecom "50" advertisement

Elecom, founded in 1947, was acquired by the typewriter giant Underwood. The desk-sized, vacuum-tube based Elecom 50, typically used for tasks such as office payroll, was programmed using paper tape.

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The Smallest That’s Big Enough

Computer pioneer George Stibitz recognized the efficiency of smaller computers, noting in 1947 “the advantages of the small group or one-man user.” Yet he also understood that data storage cost made larger systems more economical.

Stibitz’ conclusion? The ideal computer is the smallest one that could still do the job.

Burroughs E101

Designed to fill the gap between a desk calculator and a large computer, the E101 was programmed by inserting pins in a removable board. Although small and inexpensive, it proved unsuccessful in the end against small stored program computers.

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IBM 704 Electronic Data Processing System

With a $2M price tag and weighing over 30,000 lbs, the IBM 704 was not a casual purchase. But 123 customers decided that its advanced capabilities were worth the heavy investment.

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George Stibitz’s paper on the size of computers

Stibitz’s paper discussing computer size appeared in Mathematical Tables and Other Aids to Computation, the only journal then dealing exclusively with computing.

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