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History of the computer

5th and 6th generations of computers


The word ‘computer’ is an old word that has changed its meaning several times in the last few centuries.  Originating from the Latin, by the mid-17th century it meant ‘someone who computes’.  The American Heritage Dictionary (1980) gives its first computer definition as “a person who computes.”  The computer remained associated with human activity until about the middle of the 20th century when it became applied to “a programmable electronic device that can store, retrieve, and process data” as Webster’s Dictionary (1980) defines it.  Today, the word computer refers to computing devices, whether or not they are electronic, programmable, or capable of ‘storing and retrieving’ data.

The Techencyclopedia (2003) defines computer as “a general purpose machine that processes data according to a set of instructions that are stored internally either temporarily or permanently.”   The computer and all equipment attached to it are called hardware. The instructions that tell it what to do are called "software" or “program”.  A program is a detailed set of humanly prepared instructions that directs the computer to function in specific ways. Furthermore, the Encyclopedia Britannica (2003) defines computers as “the contribution of major individuals, machines, and ideas to the development of computing.”  This implies that the computer is a system.  A system is a group of computer components that work together as a unit to perform a common objective.

The term ‘history’ means past events.  The encyclopedia Britannica (2003) defines it as “the discipline that studies the chronological record of events (as affecting a nation or people), based on a critical examination of source materials and usually presenting an explanation of their causes.”  The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (1995) simply defines history as “the study of past events.…” In discussing the history of computers, chronological record of events – particularly in the area of technological development – will be explained.  History of computer in the area of technological development is being considered because it is usually the technological advancement in computers that brings about economic and social advancement.   A faster computer brings about faster operation and that in turn causes an economic development.   This paper will discuss classes of computers, computer evolution and highlight some roles played by individuals in these developments.

Fifth Generation (1984-1990)

This generation brought about the introduction of machines with hundreds of processors that could all be working on different parts of a single program. The scale of integration in semiconductors continued at a great pace and by 1990 it was possible to build chips with a million components - and semiconductor memories became standard on all computers. Computer networks and single-user workstations also became popular.

Parallel processing started in this generation.  The Sequent Balance 8000 connected up to 20 processors to a single shared memory module though each processor had its own local cache. The machine was designed to compete with the DEC VAX-780 as a general purpose Unix system, with each processor working on a different user's job. However Sequent provided a library of subroutines that would allow programmers to write programs that would use more than one processor, and the machine was widely used to explore parallel algorithms and programming techniques.  The Intel iPSC-1, also known as ‘the hypercube’ connected each processor to its own memory and used a network interface to connect processors. This distributed memory architecture meant memory was no longer a problem and large systems with more processors (as many as 128) could be built. Also introduced was a machine, known as a data-parallel or SIMD where there were several thousand very simple processors which work under the direction of a single control unit.  Both wide area network (WAN) and local area network (LAN) technology developed rapidly.

Sixth Generation (1990 -     )

Most  of  the  developments  in  computer  systems  since  1990  have  not  been  fundamental changes but have been gradual improvements over established systems.   This generation brought  about  gains  in  parallel  computing  in  both  the  hardware  and  in  improved understanding of how to develop algorithms to exploit parallel architectures.
Workstation technology continued to improve, with processor designs now using a combination of RISC, pipelining, and parallel processing.     Wide area networks, network bandwidth and speed of operation and networking capabilities have kept developing tremendously.  Personal computers (PCs) now operate with Gigabit per second processors, multi-Gigabyte disks, hundreds of Mbytes of RAM, colour printers, high-resolution graphic monitors, stereo sound cards and graphical user interfaces.  Thousands of software (operating systems and application software) are existing today and Microsoft Inc. has been a major contributor.  Microsoft is said to be one of the biggest companies ever, and its chairman – Bill Gates has been rated as the richest man for several years.

Finally, this generation has brought about micro controller technology.  Micro controllers are

’embedded’ inside some other devices (often consumer products) so that they can control the features or actions of the product.  They work as small computers inside devices and now serve as essential components in most machines.


Researching, studying and writing on ‘History of the Computer’ has indeed been a fulfilling, but challenging task and has brought about greater appreciation of several work done by scientists of old, great developmental research carried out by more recent scientists and of course the impact all such innovations have made on the development of the human race.  It has generated greater awareness of the need to study history of the computer as a means of knowing how to develop or improve on existing computer technology.

It is therefore strongly recommended that science and engineering students should develop greater interest in the history of their profession.  The saying that ‘there is nothing absolutely new under the sun’ is indeed real because the same world resources but fresh ideas have been used over the years to improve on existing technologies.

Finally, it is hoped that this paper is found suitable as a good summary of ‘the technological history and development of computer’ and challenging to upcoming scientists and engineers to study the history of their profession.

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