Zeal for Computing

Today a day does not pass without hearing a word "IT" Information Technology, or using IT gadgets. But remember the days of 50 years ago. There was almost no sign of IT, much less the word itself. It was not so long ago when the computer, the core of IT, came into being and some you may have even witnessed it. Although half century is rather short to call "history, here are some data of the computer's history.


In the first place, to compute is to calculate. As a pre-history of the current computer, in mid 1600s a manual gear wheeled calculator was invented by scientists such as Pascal and Leibniz and used until 1960s. No sooner than it was electrified, it was replaced by an electronic calculator, a "computer"


The ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), which is said to be the first computer, was built at the University of Pennsylvania's Moore School of Electrical Engineering to assist in the preparation of firing table for artillery. The machine used 19,000 vacuum tubes, occupied 450 ㎡ of floor space, weighed 30 tons and needed 200kw to run. It performed addition, subtraction and temporary storage. The ENIAC could calculate ballistic trajectories in thirty seconds, which is 8,400 times faster than a specialist in calculating did (7 hours). Vacuum tubes in the computer's circuitry were taken the place of by transistors around 1960, and followed by much smaller, more sophisticated ones in turn, Now computers calculate about 250 billion times faster than human, that is, if a man tried to calculate what a super computer does in one second, it would take one million years. 

#116 Parkway Vol.20 No.2 April - June 2006

Zeal for Computing: Behind the History


ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) was planned to calculate ballistic trajectory secretly during the World War II, but was not completed until after the war. It was declassified soon in 1946, and came to be known as the first computer. But behind this there was a well kept secret, the first electronic programmable computer developed in Britain. 


The Colossus was designed by an engineer at the General Post Office research station and mathematicians, to break high-grade German codes. It was assembled within an old mansion estate, in Bletchley Park, Milton Keynes, which had been taken over as the Government Code and Cipher School, and started to play a full part in code-breaking activity in 1944. The first Colossus was about 16 feet long, 12 feet deep and 8 feet high, and operated on 1,500 valves. It was quickly followed by the second version which was more powerful with 2,500 valves. The Colossus computers helped decipher messages between Germany and Japan, including ones by Adolf Hitler himself, coming from the highly advance German enciphering machines, such as the Lorenz machine. The Colossus machines were operating by the end of the war. 


After the war, eight of the Colossus were destroyed and two were sent to the new headquarters in Eastcote. Still the Colossus was highly secret and remained so until 1975. About 8,500 people worked and lived in Bletchley Park but no secret of it was divulged.


The Bletchley Park Trust and the community have worked on getting information about its wartime role, preserving the site and tell its visitors of the history of the park, which includes a replica of a Colossus.


We owe this information to Mr. Less Page, one of our British readers who kindly sent me a book "Britain's Best Kept Secret" and got permission from its author; Ted Enever, for us to use it. We'd like to express our thanks to both of them.

   photo credit: Ted Enever

#117 Parkway Vol.20 No.3 July - September 2006