A Dummie’s History of Computers


Believe it or not, I was born long before the first computers became available to the public. I totally lack any credentials for writing a blog on the history of computers, so I am only presenting the few facts I know to be true from experience. In other words, I am the dummie!

My first husband was an electrical engineer who graduated in 1964 from Carnegie-Mellon University. At that time, if a computer were mentioned in a conversation, most people understood it was at IBM, and had nothing to do with real life. However, my husband got a job at the university making circuit boards for their new computer, one of the first in Pittsburgh.

The computer was not a lap-top or a desktop. It took up almost the entire third floor of the new computer research building. I am saying this to explain that size mattered at that time, and the idea of a computer sitting on a desk would have drawn laughter. The computer used at least 50 huge 1’x 6’x 6’ high cabinets. These large metal cabinets held all the files and hardware for this computer, and took up the whole floor. When I see teenagers running around with internet capable cell phones I am still amazed. How did those computer cabinets get small enough to fit into these phones?

To make a program for a computer you needed three bachelor’s degrees, two master’s degrees and twelve PhD’s, so there were very few programmers. I am exaggerating, but then, as now, these people were considered the smartest of the smart, or as Apple calls them, geniuses. These are to be differentiated at all times from dummies.

One of my husband’s jobs was to solder circuit boards. The boards were about 3” by 6”. My husband soldered the wires to the board all day and when he came home at night he explained how the computer worked. One wire connected to either a 1 or a 0, depending on the voltage used. If the user asked the computer a simple question, the wires went through many boards connecting various ones and zeros until it arrived at the answer. A simple question might travel  through hundreds of wires and circuit boards. It was mind bloggleing.

“It sounds so simple, doesn’t it?” I ask.

“No it doesn’t,” another personality answers.

“Are you crazy?” a third personality chimes in.

“Who’s asking?” I wonder.

“I don’t know. Do you?”

P.S. Having checked out a few articles on computers from the Internet, I think the computer language I’m talking about is called binary, but the reader is cautioned not to speak of the information in this article in front of a professional or an educator for fear of looking a lot like a dummie. And remember, a dummie can be a computer user, but a computer user might be a genius.

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