For other uses see Computer (disambiguation).
The first devices that resemble modern computers date to the mid-20th century (1940 - 1945), although the computer concept and various machines similar to computers existed earlier. Early electronic computers were the size of a large room, consuming as much power as several hundred modern personal computers (PC). Modern computers are based on tiny integrated circuits and are millions to billions of times more capable while occupying a fraction of the space. Today, simple computers may be made small enough to fit into a wristwatch and be powered from a watch battery. Personal computers, in various forms, are icons of the Information Age and are what most people think of as "a computer"; however, the most common form of computer in use today is the embedded computer. Embedded computers are small, simple devices that are used to control other devices—for example, they may be found in machines ranging from fighter aircraft to industrial robots, digital cameras, and children's toys.
The ability to store and execute lists of instructions called programs makes computers extremely versatile and distinguishes them from calculators. The Church–Turing thesis is a mathematical statement of this versatility: any computer with a certain minimum capability is, in principle, capable of performing the same tasks that any other computer can perform. Therefore, computers with capability and complexity ranging from that of a personal digital assistant to a supercomputer are all able to perform the same computational tasks given enough time and storage capacity.
See main article: History of computer hardware.
It is difficult to identify any one device as the earliest computer, partly because the term "computer" has been subject to varying interpretations over time. Originally, the term "computer" referred to a person who performed numerical calculations (a human computer), often with the aid of a mechanical calculating device.
The history of the modern computer begins with two separate technologies—that of automated calculation and that of programmability.
Examples of early mechanical calculating devices included the abacus, the slide rule and arguably the astrolabe and the Antikythera mechanism (which dates from about 150-100 BC). Hero of Alexandria (c. 10–70 AD) built a mechanical theater which performed a play lasting 10 minutes and was operated by a complex system of ropes and drums that might be considered to be a means of deciding which parts of the mechanism performed which actions and when. This is the essence of programmability.
The "castle clock", an astronomical clock invented by Al-Jazari in 1206, is considered to be the earliest programmable analog computer. It displayed the zodiac, the solar and lunar orbits, a crescent moon-shaped pointer travelling across a gateway causing automatic doors to open every hour,  and five robotic musicians who play music when struck by levers operated by a camshaft attached to a water wheel. The length of day and night could be re-programmed every day in order to account for the changing lengths of day and night throughout the year.
The end of the Middle Ages saw a re-invigoration of European mathematics and engineering, and Wilhelm Schickard's 1623 device was the first of a number of mechanical calculators constructed by European engineers. However, none of those devices fit the modern definition of a computer because they could not be programmed.
In 1801, Joseph Marie Jacquard made an improvement to the textile loom that used a series of punched paper cards as a template to allow his loom to weave intricate patterns automatically. The resulting Jacquard loom was an important step in the development of computers because the use of punched cards to define woven patterns can be viewed as an early, albeit limited, form of programmability.
It was the fusion of automatic calculation with programmability that produced the first recognizable computers. In 1837, Charles Babbage was the first to conceptualize and design a fully programmable mechanical computer that he called "The Analytical Engine". Due to limited finances, and an inability to resist tinkering with the design, Babbage never actually built his Analytical Engine.
Large-scale automated data processing of punched cards was performed for the U.S. Census in 1890 by tabulating machines designed by Herman Hollerith and manufactured by the Computing Tabulating Recording Corporation, which later became IBM. By the end of the 19th century a number of technologies that would later prove useful in the realization of practical computers had begun to appear: the punched card, Boolean algebra, the vacuum tube (thermionic valve) and the teleprinter.
During the first half of the 20th century, many scientific computing needs were met by increasingly sophisticated analog computers, which used a direct mechanical or electrical model of the problem as a basis for computation. However, these were not programmable and generally lacked the versatility and accuracy of modern digital computers.
A succession of steadily more powerful and flexible computing devices were constructed in the 1930s and 1940s, gradually adding the key features that are seen in modern computers. The use of digital electronics (largely invented by Claude Shannon in 1937) and more flexible programmability were vitally important steps, but defining one point along this road as "the first digital electronic computer" is difficult . Notable achievements include:
Several developers of ENIAC, recognizing its flaws, came up with a far more flexible and elegant design, which came to be known as the "stored program architecture" or von Neumann architecture. This design was first formally described by John von Neumann in the paper First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC, distributed in 1945. A number of projects to develop computers based on the stored-program architecture commenced around this time, the first of these being completed in Great Britain. The first to be demonstrated working was the Manchester Small-Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM or "Baby"), while the EDSAC, completed a year after SSEM, was the first practical implementation of the stored program design. Shortly thereafter, the machine originally described by von Neumann's paper—EDVAC—was completed but did not see full-time use for an additional two years.
Nearly all modern computers implement some form of the stored-program architecture, making it the single trait by which the word "computer" is now defined. While the technologies used in computers have changed dramatically since the first electronic, general-purpose computers of the 1940s, most still use the von Neumann architecture.
Computers using vacuum tubes as their electronic elements were in use throughout the 1950s, but by the 1960s had been largely replaced by transistor-based machines, which were smaller, faster, cheaper to produce, required less power, and were more reliable. The first transistorised computer was demonstrated at the University of Manchester in 1953. In the 1970s, integrated circuit technology and the subsequent creation of microprocessors, such as the Intel 4004, further decreased size and cost and further increased speed and reliability of computers. By the 1980s, computers became sufficiently small and cheap to replace simple mechanical controls in domestic appliances such as washing machines. The 1980s also witnessed home computers and the now ubiquitous personal computer. With the evolution of the Internet, personal computers are becoming as common as the television and the telephone in the household.
Modern smartphones are fully-programmable computers in their own right, in a technical sense, and as of 2009 may well be the most common form of such computers in existence.
The defining feature of modern computers which distinguishes them from all other machines is that they can be programmed. That is to say that a list of instructions (the program) can be given to the computer and it will store them and carry them out at some time in the future.
In most cases, computer instructions are simple: add one number to another, move some data from one location to another, send a message to some external device, etc. These instructions are read from the computer's memory and are generally carried out (executed) in the order they were given. However, there are usually specialized instructions to tell the computer to jump ahead or backwards to some other place in the program and to carry on executing from there. These are called "jump" instructions (or branches). Furthermore, jump instructions may be made to happen conditionally so that different sequences of instructions may be used depending on the result of some previous calculation or some external event. Many computers directly support subroutines by providing a type of jump that "remembers" the location it jumped from and another instruction to return to the instruction following that jump instruction.
Program execution might be likened to reading a book. While a person will normally read each word and line in sequence, they may at times jump back to an earlier place in the text or skip sections that are not of interest. Similarly, a computer may sometimes go back and repeat the instructions in some section of the program over and over again until some internal condition is met. This is called the flow of control within the program and it is what allows the computer to perform tasks repeatedly without human intervention.
Comparatively, a person using a pocket calculator can perform a basic arithmetic operation such as adding two numbers with just a few button presses. But to add together all of the numbers from 1 to 1,000 would take thousands of button presses and a lot of time—with a near certainty of making a mistake. On the other hand, a computer may be programmed to do this with just a few simple instructions. For example:
mov #0,sum ; set sum to 0 mov #1,num ; set num to 1 loop: add num,sum ; add num to sum add #1,num ; add 1 to num cmp num,#1000 ; compare num to 1000 ble loop ; if num <= 1000, go back to 'loop' halt ; end of program. stop running
Once told to run this program, the computer will perform the repetitive addition task without further human intervention. It will almost never make a mistake and a modern PC can complete the task in about a millionth of a second.
However, computers cannot "think" for themselves in the sense that they only solve problems in exactly the way they are programmed to. An intelligent human faced with the above addition task might soon realize that instead of actually adding up all the numbers one can simply use the equation
and arrive at the correct answer (500,500) with little work. In other words, a computer programmed to add up the numbers one by one as in the example above would do exactly that without regard to efficiency or alternative solutions.
In practical terms, a computer program may run from just a few instructions to many millions of instructions, as in a program for a word processor or a web browser. A typical modern computer can execute billions of instructions per second (gigahertz or GHz) and rarely make a mistake over many years of operation. Large computer programs comprising several million instructions may take teams of programmers years to write, thus the probability of the entire program having been written without error is highly unlikely.
Errors in computer programs are called "bugs". Bugs may be benign and not affect the usefulness of the program, or have only subtle effects. But in some cases they may cause the program to "hang" - become unresponsive to input such as mouse clicks or keystrokes, or to completely fail or "crash". Otherwise benign bugs may sometimes may be harnessed for malicious intent by an unscrupulous user writing an "exploit" - code designed to take advantage of a bug and disrupt a program's proper execution. Bugs are usually not the fault of the computer. Since computers merely execute the instructions they are given, bugs are nearly always the result of programmer error or an oversight made in the program's design.
In most computers, individual instructions are stored as machine code with each instruction being given a unique number (its operation code or opcode for short). The command to add two numbers together would have one opcode, the command to multiply them would have a different opcode and so on. The simplest computers are able to perform any of a handful of different instructions; the more complex computers have several hundred to choose from—each with a unique numerical code. Since the computer's memory is able to store numbers, it can also store the instruction codes. This leads to the important fact that entire programs (which are just lists of instructions) can be represented as lists of numbers and can themselves be manipulated inside the computer just as if they were numeric data. The fundamental concept of storing programs in the computer's memory alongside the data they operate on is the crux of the von Neumann, or stored program, architecture. In some cases, a computer might store some or all of its program in memory that is kept separate from the data it operates on. This is called the Harvard architecture after the Harvard Mark I computer. Modern von Neumann computers display some traits of the Harvard architecture in their designs, such as in CPU caches.
While it is possible to write computer programs as long lists of numbers (machine language) and this technique was used with many early computers, it is extremely tedious to do so in practice, especially for complicated programs. Instead, each basic instruction can be given a short name that is indicative of its function and easy to remember—a mnemonic such as ADD, SUB, MULT or JUMP. These mnemonics are collectively known as a computer's assembly language. Converting programs written in assembly language into something the computer can actually understand (machine language) is usually done by a computer program called an assembler. Machine languages and the assembly languages that represent them (collectively termed low-level programming languages) tend to be unique to a particular type of computer. For instance, an ARM architecture computer (such as may be found in a PDA or a hand-held videogame) cannot understand the machine language of an Intel Pentium or the AMD Athlon 64 computer that might be in a PC.
Though considerably easier than in machine language, writing long programs in assembly language is often difficult and error prone. Therefore, most complicated programs are written in more abstract high-level programming languages that are able to express the needs of the computer programmer more conveniently (and thereby help reduce programmer error). High level languages are usually "compiled" into machine language (or sometimes into assembly language and then into machine language) using another computer program called a compiler. Since high level languages are more abstract than assembly language, it is possible to use different compilers to translate the same high level language program into the machine language of many different types of computer. This is part of the means by which software like video games may be made available for different computer architectures such as personal computers and various video game consoles.
The task of developing large software systems is an immense intellectual effort. Producing software with an acceptably high reliability on a predictable schedule and budget has proved historically to be a great challenge; the academic and professional discipline of software engineering concentrates specifically on this problem.
Suppose a computer is being employed to drive a traffic signal at an intersection between two streets. The computer has the following three basic instructions.
Comments are marked with a // on the left margin.Assume the streetnames are Broadway and Main.
START //Let Broadway traffic go OFF(Broadway, Red) ON(Broadway, Green) WAIT(60 seconds) //Stop Broadway traffic OFF(Broadway, Green) ON(Broadway, Yellow) WAIT(3 seconds) OFF(Broadway, Yellow) ON(Broadway, Red) //Let Main traffic go OFF(Main, Red) ON(Main, Green) WAIT(60 seconds) //Stop Main traffic OFF(Main, Green) ON(Main, Yellow) WAIT(3 seconds) OFF(Main, Yellow) ON(Main, Red) //Tell computer to continuously repeat the program. REPEAT ALL
With this set of instructions, the computer would cycle the light continually through red, green, yellow and back to red again on both streets.
However, suppose there is a simple on/off switch connected to the computer that is intended to be used to make the light flash red while some maintenance operation is being performed. The program might then instruct the computer to:
START IF Switch
A modern "commodity" microprocessor (as of 2007) can process billions of operations per second, and many of these operations are more complicated and useful than early computer operations.