Introduction to Computers

All around us, all the time, swirls a storm of information.  It’s natural for us to overlook this tempest of data; as we move through our lives, we’re indulging in millions of years of evolution that’s honed our instincts and intuitions to unconsciously harmonize with nature’s informational symphony.  Our instincts help us stay balanced, for example.  The information needed to keep us on our feet reverberates through our nervous system sending signals back and forth to our muscles to constantly adjust their tissue tension in line with gravity.  Our intuitions help us communicate.  The information needed for speech is expressed through a developmental acquisition of linguistic rules that, by about one or two years old, enables us to share ideas with other people through words that represent recognizable bits of information instead of random sounds.  There is no end to the number of examples we could discuss because, at its most essential level, everything we do is based on information.

We value information most when we don’t have enough of it.  When you’re lost, you lack the information about how to move through your environment.  When a storm catches your community off guard, you lack the information to predict meteorological development.  When you’re losing a war, you lack information about how to destroy your enemy.

In a large sense, history is the story of informational acquisition.  Planting the first crops 12,000 years ago was an informational breakthrough about how to ensure steady food.  The Age of Enlightenment 300 years ago was an informational breakthrough about how rational inquiry could yield much greater social and scientific progress.  The civil rights movement in America 50 years ago was an informational breakthrough exposing the hypocrisy of democratic idealism in a society that oppressed millions.  Such events demarcate the milestones of history.

But, something about our age is very different.  A profound change has occurred in our relationship with information.  The statistics defy belief, but the amount of information our global society now processes in a single day matches the total amount that humanity had ever processed leading up to around the year 2000.  So, when it comes to creating and interpreting information, a day’s work in the early 21st century exceeds the output of a hundred centuries worth of work that preceded it.  This incredible development is not just another informational breakthrough, this is an information revolution.  And if history itself can be interpreted as a long project of informational acquisition, then the impact of our current information revolution will supersede the impact of all past events combined.  We are wholly departing from the historical trajectory of progress, and the technology that’s propelling us is the computer.

In the developed world, we now expect computer access like we expect access to clean water, for our very survival in the modern economy is predicated on our ability to manage vastly more information than we could in a thousand lifetimes with just our brains.  The hardware and software of our computers have become the appendages of the wetware in our heads, forming a new triad of superhuman intelligence that enables us to remember a million phone numbers, recall a million facts, perfectly preserve a million moments of our lives, create a million iterations of our imagination, and so much more.  And, because the human brain is the most complicated thing we know of in the universe, computers, as the ultimate tools of the brain, are the most complicated machines we’ve ever built.  We need computers to design computers.  But where did this all start?  When did we make the leap from building machines for our muscles to building machines for our minds?  How did we originate the technology of information that has ever since fed its own growth?

I give you computers, and how they began.


Select Bibliography for Computers

Georges Ifrah and David Bello, The Universal History of Numbers: From Prehistory to the Invention of the Computer, Wiley, 2000.

Herbert W. Meyer, A History of Electricity and Magnetism, MIT, 1972.

Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray, Computer: A History of the Information Machine, Second Edition, Westview Press, 2004.

Paul E Ceruzzi, Computing: A Concise History, MIT Press, 2012.

Stephen J Marshall, The Story of the Computer: A Technical and Business History, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 1st Edition, 2017.