Timeline of Computer History


Alan Turing

Alan Turing quoted by The London Times on artificial intelligence

On June 11, The London Times quotes the mathematician Alan Turing. “I do not see why it (the machine) should not enter any one of the fields normally covered by the human intellect, and eventually compete on equal terms. I do not think you even draw the line about sonnets, though the comparison is perhaps a little bit unfair because a sonnet written by a machine will be better appreciated by another machine.”


AT&T modem circa 1958

Birth of the Modem

Computers “talk” over ordinary voice phone lines through modems. Developed in 1949 for transmitting radar signals by Jack Harrington’s group at the Air Force Cambridge Research Center (AFCRC) near Boston, the modem modulates digital data into sounds, and demodulates received sounds into digital data. (MODulation + DEModulation = MODEM). Modems will be adapted to computers in 1953 for the upcoming SAGE system, and commercialized by Bell Telephone in 1958. By letting computers use normal voice telephone lines, they offer greater coverage and lower costs than dedicated telegraph or leased data lines.


British brain surgeon Geoffrey Jefferson

Brain surgeon reflects on artificial intelligence

On June 9, at Manchester University’s Lister Oration, British brain surgeon Geoffrey Jefferson states, “Not until a machine can write a sonnet or compose a concerto because of thoughts and emotions felt, and not by the chance fall of symbols, could we agree that machine equals brain – that is, not only write it but know that it had written it. No mechanism could feel (and not merely artificially signal, an easy contrivance) pleasure at its successes, grief when its valves fuse, be warmed by flattery, be made miserable by its mistakes, be charmed by sex, be angry or miserable when it cannot get what it wants.”



CSIRAC runs first program

While many early digital computers were based on similar designs, such as the IAS and its copies, others are unique designs, like the CSIRAC. Built in Sydney, Australia by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research for use in its Radio physics Laboratory in Sydney, CSIRAC was designed by British-born Trevor Pearcey, and used unusual 12-hole paper tape. It was transferred to the Department of Physics at the University of Melbourne in 1955 and remained in service until 1964.



EDSAC completed

The first practical stored-program computer to provide a regular computing service, EDSAC is built at Cambridge University using vacuum tubes and mercury delay lines for memory. The EDSAC project was led by Cambridge professor and director of the Cambridge Computation Laboratory, Maurice Wilkes. Wilkes' ideas grew out of the Moore School lectures he had attended three years earlier. One major advance in programming was Wilkes' use of a library of short programs, called “subroutines,” stored on punched paper tapes and used for performing common repetitive calculations within a larger program.


Maurice Wilkes with EDSAC


Maurice Wilkes and his team at the University of Cambridge construct the Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator (EDSAC). EDSAC, a stored program computer, used mercury delay line memory. Wilkes had attended the University of Pennsylvania's Moore School of Engineering summer sessions about the ENIAC in 1946 and shortly thereafter began work on the EDSAC.


IBM Card Programmed Calculator (CPC), ca. 1949

IBM switches to electronics

IBM executive Thomas Watson Jr., speaking to an IBM sales meeting, predicts that all moving parts in IBM machines would be replaced by electronics within a decade. The change to electronics marked a major shift for IBM, which since the 1920s was the world leader in electro-mechanical punched card systems. Initially, “electronics” meant the use of vacuum tubes for circuitry but in the mid-1950s, IBM management instructed all its engineers to make new equipment: “Solid state by ’58,” was the call--which meant using the new technology of transistors in all new IBM computer products.


MADDIDA (Magnetic Drum Digital Differential Analyzer) prototype

MADDIDA developed

MADDIDA is a digital drum-based differential analyzer. This type of computer is useful in performing many of the mathematical equations scientists and engineers encounter in their work. It was originally created for a nuclear missile design project in 1949 by a team led by Fred Steele. It used 53 vacuum tubes and hundreds of germanium diodes, with a magnetic drum for memory. Tracks on the drum did the mathematical integration. MADDIDA was flown across the country for a demonstration to John von Neumann, who was impressed. Northrop was initially reluctant to make MADDIDA a commercial product, but by the end of 1952, six had sold.


Jay Forrester holding early core memory plane

MIT - Magnetic core memory

While working on the Whirlwind project at MIT, Jay Forrester writes a notebook entry on June 13 that describes his early thoughts on the “coincident current” technique for a magnetic core memory system. This system was the first reliable high-speed random access memory for computers. Magnetic core memory was widely used as the main memory technology for computers well into the 1970s.


Manchester Mark I

Manchester Mark I completed

Built by a team led by engineers Frederick Williams and Tom Kilburn, the Mark I serves as the prototype for Ferranti’s first computer – the Ferranti Mark 1. The Manchester Mark I used more than 1,300 vacuum tubes and occupied an area the size of a medium room. Its “Williams-Kilburn tube” memory system was later adopted by several other early computer systems around the world.