Computer History in the 50s and 60s

Sarah Felice

Konrad Zuse developed and designed the first commercial computer in 1950 called the Z4. Zuse started work on the Z4 in 1942 in Berlin Germany. However, World War II was at its height during this time and Berlin was being bombed just about every day. Thus, making it nearly impossible to complete work on his computer. In 1945 Zuse would flee Berlin with his wife and his partly-finished computer to Hinterstein, Baveria. After the move to Baveria, Zuse earned money by selling woodcuts and it wasn’t until 1948 he was able to resume work on the Z4. In 1949 Zuse was contacted by ETH-Zurich about his Z4 computer. ETH would end up buying the Z4 which encouraged Zuse to create his own company, called Zuse KG. The money Zuse received from ETH allowed him to create his own company and able to make improvements on the Z4. In September of 1950 the Z4 was put into action for the first time. The Z4 was a very reliable and impressive computer for its time. With its large instruction set it was able to calculate complicated scientific programs and was able to work during the night without supervision, which was unheard of for this time.

At this point in history computers were used to help calculate complex engineering and math problems and used for military purposes. England used computers to help decode the Germans secret communications codes during World War II, while in the United States they used computers to help calculate trajectories of guns and missiles. No one thought to use computers as a business tool to help make their business more efficient. However, in 1951 a British catering company, J. Lyons & Co, had built a computer that would use the valuation of the output of its bakeries. In 1947 Lyons sent two management trainees to the United States to figure out if any new business practices had developed during the time of World War II. While the two management trainees were in the United States they would see the first electronic computers and saw the potential it had in a business standpoint. The two management trainees reported back to Lyons that they should try and get a computer for the company. Lyons would agree that the company should find a way to acquire a computer. As it turned out Cambridge University was in the works for designing a new computer under the guidelines of Maurice Wilkes. The Lyons company decided to work with Wilkes designing a computer and in return would be able to copy parts of the design of that computer to build their own. The Lyons company would create a computer that was able to account for transactions, invoices and complex payrolls much faster than clerks or other business machines to do them. The computer would be called the Lyons Electronic Office or LEO.

In August of 1953 the first magnetic-core memory was installed on the Whirlwind computer on a project that was led by Jay W. Forrester working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the U.S. Navy. The great significance of the magnetic-core memory was that this would finally allow real-time processing for computers through the use of random-access storage. The magnetic-core would now give the computer a place where binary information could be stored and retrieved. Now able to store and access data, procedures and programs meant that computers could be operated interactively for the first time. This innovation is known as Random-access memory, or, RAM. The innovation of the magnetic-core memory now allows computers to be operated interactively in real time for the first time.

Emplyoees working at a PDP-1

The PDP-1 was first used in 1961 and is considered the first effective mini-computer. The computer had several features that made it desirable to its users. The computer only needed one person to operate it. It was easy to add all kinds of input/output devices. And, it was easy to get time on the machine. The PDP-1 was the first commercial interactive computer and used to pave the path for timesharing systems, allowing smaller labs and businesses to gain access to more computing power then they had before. The PDP-1 is known for starting the hacking culture at MIT and for playing the first game on a minicomputer, Spacewar. The game was introduced in 1961 by Steve Russell, a computer programmer from MIT. It took Russell around 200 man-hours to write the program for Spacewar and is considered the first “shoot- ‘em’ up” genre game.

Wesley A. Clark standing with the LINC computer 1962

Wesley A. Clark was a computer scientist and one of the people, along with Charles Molnar to create the LINC computer. The LINC computer is considered the first personal computer priced for ordinary people. Clark’s idea for a small computer for the ordinary person led him to take a 3-week period of time off from work to design a small computer. Clark’s computer had to meet several criteria: First it had to be easy to program and easy to communicate with while in operation and easy to maintain. It had to be able to process biotechnical signals directly. It could not be too high to see over and cost at most $25,000. The LINC had 2 kilobit of core memory (2048 words), a 256 x 256 CRT display. four knobs, which were like a mouse during this time, and the Soroban keyboard. It was manufactures in 1964 where 50 were built and 21 were sold at $43,600, which was cheap at the time.

In 1969 the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), a part of the U.S. Department of Defense started work on the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (APRANET), predecessor to the internet. The objective of ARPANET was to link computers at Pentagon-funded research facilities over telephone lines. In 1967 at an Association for Computing Machinery symposium plans were announced for computer network that would link 16 ARPA-sponsored universities and research centers around the United States. By early 1969 a team from Cambridge, Massachusetts got a million dollar contract to build the network. The beginning of ARPANET started in the late 1960s and would not be finished until the 70s. While the military was searching for a way to communicate using computers ARPANET was more academic than for military. ARPANET did take on a form that is like the internet we know today and is considered the predecessor to the modern day internet.