A Brief History of Computations

Learn a brief history of computation machines.

History of computation tools

In the past, when the scale of computation was limited, humans would perform calculations manually. It would take them some time to even count up to a few hundred. But as the computations got more complex, humans started using tools that would perform complex calculations and store their results.

The abacus

One of the earliest computation tools is the abacus. It served as an essential counting tool that also stored the resulting count. It was made up of wooden beads that could be moved to the right or left to increment or decrement the count.

A working demonstration of an abacus is shown below. It can store a count of up to 9999. The yellow beads increment units, the green beads increment tens, the blue beads increment hundreds, and the red beads increment thousands. So, to count 2341, you’ll have to move two red beads, three blue beads, four green beads, and one yellow bead to the right.

Note: Click the colorful beads to move them to the left or right to compute 2341.

The abacus

The Pascaline and the Leibniz wheel

In 1642, the abacus evolved into the first mechanical calculator, the Pascaline, created by Blaise Pascal. It was only able to add and subtract numbers by manipulating its dials. Let’s see how we can add two numbers, 28 and 35, in the Pascaline in the slides below:

To improve the Pascaline, a German mathematician named Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz invented a digital mechanical calculator called the Leibniz wheel in 1694. Based on the binary number system, it was the first calculator that could perform all four arithmetic operations.

The first computer

Charles Babbage is referred to as the “father of the computer” because he conceptualized and invented the first general-purpose programmable computing engine in the early 19th century. In 1822, Babbage began his work on his revolutionary difference engine, designed to aid in navigation calculations. In 1833, he came up with the idea of a much more general design. Thus began his work on a more advanced machine called the Analytical Engine. It was the first general-purpose computing machine, while the previous machines were all made for very specific computing tasks. This machine could be programmed through a series of hole-punched cards and used several techniques that are still used in modern computing, such as the arithmetic logic unit, control flow, and integrated memory.

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The first general-purpose programmable computing engine
The first general-purpose programmable computing engine