The first computers were people! That is, electronic computers (and the earlier mechanical computers) were given this name because they performed the work that had previously been assigned to people. "Computer" was originally a job title: it was used to describe those human beings (predominantly women) whose job it was to perform the repetitive calculations required to compute such things as navigational tables, tide charts, and planetary positions for astronomical almanacs. Therefore, inventors have been searching for hundreds of years for a way to mechanize (that is, find a mechanism that can perform) this task. The abacus was an early aid for mathematical computations.
Its only value is that it aids the memory of the human performing the calculation. A skilled abacus operator can work on addition and subtraction problems at the speed of a person equipped with a hand calculator (multiplication and division are slower). The abacus is often wrongly attributed to China. The abacus is still in use today, principally in the far east. A modern abacus consists of rings that slide over rods, but the older one pictured below dates from the time when pebbles were used for counting (the word "calculus" comes from the Latin word for pebble). IBM continued to develop mechanical calculators for sale to businesses to help with financial accounting and inventory accounting. One characteristic of both financial accounting and inventory accounting is that although you need to subtract, you don't need negative numbers and you really don't have to multiply since multiplication can be accomplished via repeated addition. By World War II the U.S. had battleships that could lob shells weighing as much as a small car over distances up to 25 miles. Physicists could write the equations that described how atmospheric drag, wind, gravity, muzzle velocity, etc. would determine the trajectory of the shell. But solving such equations was extremely laborious. During World War II the U.S. military scoured the country looking for (generally female) math majors to hire for the job of computing these tables. But not enough humans could be found to keep up with the need for new tables. One early success was the Harvard Mark I computer which was built as a partnership between Harvard and IBM in 1944. The Mark I ran non-stop for 15 years, sounding like a roomful of ladies knitting. A Harvard freshman by the name of Bill Gates decided to drop out of college so he could concentrate all his time writing programs for this computer. This early experienced put Bill Gates in the right place at the right time once IBM decided to standardize on the Intel microprocessors for their line of PCs in 1981. The Intel Pentium 4 used in today's PCs is still compatible with the Intel 8088 used in IBM's first PC.
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