A history of personal computing in 20 objects part 1
From the 17th Century to the 1970s
The War Years...
Devised by Konrad Zuse (1910–1995) in 1941, the Z3 was the world's first programmable electromechanical digital computer. It was built in Berlin and was used to analyse aircraft wing designs. Nominally a general-purpose machine, it nonetheless featured an instruction set heavily oriented to solving engineering problems. The Z3 comprised 2000 electric relay switches to store and operate on binary numbers. Programs and data were stored on punched film, and it was able to crunch five to ten numbers a second. The Z3 continued in operation until 1943 when it was destroyed in an Allied air raid. Zuse went on to develop the Z4, a more advanced version of the Z3, and to pioneer computer design on through the 1950s and 1960s.
Colossus, the first electronic programmable digital computer, was created in 1943 by Post Office engineer Tommy Flowers (1905-1998) and others as a faster, more reliable alternative to the electro-mechanical rigs then being used to compare German coded military messages with the entire possible output of the Nazis’ Lorentz cypher machine. Flowers believed his electronic machine could don the job more quickly and more reliably, and when it was put to work in 1944 it quickly proved itself a success. It was able to compare message at 5000 characters per second, almost three times the speed of the electro-mechanical system. Flowers immediately began work on an improved model which formed the basis for nine more machines installed in code-breaking centre Bletchley Park throughout the remainder of the War. Flowers’ work remained a secret until the 1970s.
ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer) began life in 1943 as a University of Pennsylvania project to devise a machine capable of calculating ballistic firing solutions for the US Army, though it was first used for hydrogen bomb design calculations. Conceived by John Mauchly and J Presper Eckert, ENIAC was completed after World War II in 1946 and so its existence 1946 was made public in a way Colossus and the Z3 never could be. Designed as a general purpose computing machine, ENIAC contained almost 17,500 vacuum tubes, and used IBM punch cards to present results and to take in input data. Data was stored not in binary form but as decimal numbers. Like Colossus, ENIAC was programmed by setting switches and wiring.