In the beginning* there were mainframe computers, and lo, they were big and scary. They lived in special rooms with dedicated servants and they carried out mysterious number-crunching and file-processing work, and there was order in the world.
In 1943 the CEO of IBM Thomas J. Watson was alleged to have said, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers”
(*Ed. not really the beginning, let’s say the late 1940’s to the early 1970’s)
And then the internet and Personal Computers came upon the earth, and thence the worldwide web, mobile, and The Cloud…and everything got so very complicated!
Of course millennials take this all for granted, those born into the wireless and web-enabled world may never have used a phone box, waited for a dial-up modem to finish beeping and squawking, had to share limited computer time, or seen a ‘green-on-black’ monitor. However, with this familiarity and increasing abstraction from the physical world comes the risk that the form and function of computers merge together. In the words of Little Britain, ‘the computer says’…the computer doesn’t say anything, it makes a decision, sends a message, or it carries out an action based on how it has been programmed and how it is being used, including defective logic and misuse.
The table of IT elements covers some of the newer technologies and IT paradigms, but what of the basic humble Computer? The good news is that they are still there doing the heavy-lift work behind the tablets, the web pages and mobile apps. It is useful to understand a little about the basic technology whether you choose to work in the IT industry or not. Informed Users are better Users.
There is a shortage of computer scientists and engineers in the [UK] workplace, but efforts are underway to address this; in English schools there is a new compulsory ‘Computing’ syllabus, and a focus on teaching STEM subjects (Science. Technology, Engineering & Maths). The massive popularity of the Raspberry Pi cheap credit-card-sized computer kits is a throw-back to the days of hobby computing. Programming is accessible to more people than ever, with a wealth of freeware and open-source tools and software available to the novice ‘hack’ as well as professional developers.
What’s inside the box?
Interestingly it would be almost impossible to define or describe a computer by what it does any more – a bit like a TV – in that the range of devices, the content and uses (applications) are as varied as the Users themselves, and are constantly evolving. Unlike a motor car, for example, which has a finite variety of modes and functions, a digital Computer can only be described in broad terms as a collection of components. I was reminded of this fact at a vintage car rally; a new car fresh off the production line does more or less the same as one from the 1930’s. There is also a clear family resemblance (engine, seats, wheels etc.) to their forerunners. Which is where the analogy breaks down; you have to try harder to see the common ‘moving parts’ behind a smart phone, laptop, web server, and an embedded microprocessor.
However, these core components are broadly the same:
- A Central Processor or ‘chip’ that applies rules, manages resources, and connects other components together, using…
- Software, the instructions that define what the computer does based on algorithms, data and external stimuli.
- Some memory or storage capability, increasingly a ‘virtual’ commodity that lives beyond the computer itself.
- Input and output devices that provide connections with the physical outside world, or other computers or network devices.
- (A power source)
Obviously this is a very simplistic view of the technology, but I hope it helps to put the intended purpose of computers into some context:
[computers] process digital information based on coded instructions; they respond to stimuli, interact-with storage devices, and communicate with the outside world.
I think that’s my one-line definition right there, not much use is it?!
I wonder if the concept of a computer and this definition will still be relevant in a future with flying cars, personal jetpacks and astral projection!
I hope you found this interesting and reassuring? You can read more about Computers in the IT Elementary School.
(c) 2015 Antony Lawrence CBA Ltd.