The Best of Creative Computing Volume 1 (published 1976)

Page 68 << PREVIOUS >> NEXT Jump to page:
Go to contents Go to thumbnails

Digital Calculators - Then And Now (from the booklet 1974 More About Computers published by IBM)

graphic of page

Digital Calculators - Then and Now

The electronic digital computer first appeared in the middle 1940s.Then, it was
a specialized calculating tool of mathematicians and scientists. Today, it is
helping to solve information problems in almost every area of human activity.

The computer now can be used to print bank statements, as well as calculate
astronomical tables. It can be used to compare the writing styles of two poets,
as well as compare the performances of two chemical processes. It helps creative
artists, as well as builders of bridges or buildings.

This revolution in computer use parallels to some extent an earlier evolution
from simple manual counting tools to mechanized data processing machines. Some
of the basic principles embodied in early mechanized calculators, as well as the
problems they were designed to solve, help to explain the significance of the
modern digital computer and the recent rocket-like rise in its use as a general
problem-solving tool.


In the beginning
It's usually assumed that man developed the concept of number and counting
before he developed an effective written language of words. His first records
were primitive accounting and inventory records of grain, animals and
possessions, recorded with sticks, pebbles or scratches on cave walls.

But his need for information and communications gradually outstripped the
capability of these simple tools. So he invented new and better tools: first the
abacus and, later, faster mechanical and electrical counting and
information-handling aids. These were the forerunners of today's electronic
digital computers.

The Abacus
The first digital calculator, the abacus, is really a mechanized form of
pebble-counting. Beads, sliding on wires, substitute for the pebbles. Five beads
below a wooden bar are units; each bead above is worth five. Numbers are
represented by pushing beads against the bar. The wires or columns, starting at
the right, represent place value: units, tens, hundreds, etc., just as our
decimal arithmetic columns do. The abacus first appeared in the Near East and
China about 2,ooo years ago and it is still being used in parts of Asia.


Left, early Egyptian numerical symbols.

Above, an abacus similar to those used for rapid calculation in the Orient since
the thirteenth century.

Facing page, top, French mathematician Blaise Pascal's Arithmetic Machine,
invented in 1642.

Below, a nineteenth-century Jacquard loom, controlled with punched cards.

Reprinted from the booklet More About Computers with permission of IBM.
Copyright 1974 by International Business Machines Corp.

Page 68 << PREVIOUS >> NEXT Jump to page:
Go to contents Go to thumbnails