What are some significant hardware projects in the history of computing?

Mudassir Ali
Feb 04, 2020 02:53 PM 0 Answers
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Mudassir Ali
- Feb 04, 2020 02:53 PM

Alan Turing is often recognised as the father of computing. While there are still working models of the mechanical Turing Bomb used to break the German Enigma cypher, what has been lost to history is Colossus, the electronic successor. It was a valve/tube based system capable of processing 5000 cps truly ending any mystery surrounding Enigma.

Sadly, at the end of WW2, Churchill ordered that all Colossus equipment be destroyed and buried, firstly in the hope that it should never be needed again, and, secondly, so that it could not fall into the wrong hands.

The torch is then passed to ENIAC, the US-built system that was custom programmable (whereas Colossus was a single-task dedicated system) and inadequately documented by its builders. The people tasked with programming it had to reverse engineer every circuit in order to be able to enter the simplest program. Because of the sheer numbers of tubes in use, the system contained multiple redundant systems so that tube replacement could be performed while the machine was still operating. This marked the start room-sized computers that would only be owned by big corporations. It also marked the beginning of the exploration of A.I. in Science Fiction.

After the first transistor was successfully created at Bell Labs, these devices started replacing tubes as discreet components. The machines remained large and hot, but started growing in processing power.

The next step was the creation of the Integrated Circuit (IC) which was the foundation of Intel’s core business. Upon receiving a project order from a Japanese company, someone recognised the potential of the project. Intel refunded the Japanese company, and developed the project into the first MCPU (Micro-Central Processing Unit), releasing it as the 4004.

Another development was ferrite magnetic memory, which involved the direction of magnetization of a ferrite ring or “core” — a word which persists in computing to this day. While much is made of core memory in old text books, it was expensive as it had to be hand built, bulky, and no where near the amount that people imagine was ever produced.

Apart from adopting capacitor-based Dynamic RAM over silicon-based Static RAM because it’s cheaper to produce, most of what we have today is derivative of these projects. Only the density, power consumption vs processing and other LSI chipsets have improved to give us something more powerful than ENIAC that fits in our shirt pockets. NASA went to the moon with less computing power than today’s pocket calculator.

When it comes to storage media, we have a whole new story.

First was punched paper tape, rapidly followed by magnetic tape.

IBM, realizing that there was a need to access data much more quickly than could be found on a spool of tape, developed the “drum drive”—a single rotating drum with write heads on one side and read heads on the other. I don’t know who was the smart chap who realized that flat platters would give greater surface area, but the Hard Disc Drive as we know it today, complete with floating movable heads was born. Tape Drives still exist for archival purposes but are rarely used in an “online” manner.

On the domestic front, HDDs remained way too expensive, and many variations on tape drives were tried. Most of the successful ones used the pre-existing Phillips Audio Cassette, although some manufacturers tried variations on 8-track cartridges. The Sinclair QL used a looped tape cartridge drive in which the tape itself was only 1/16″ wide. Obviously, one had to wait until the desired data had gone full circuit to come back to the head.

Competing with cassette based systems in the 70s was the 8″ floppy disk. Disks were for businesses that could afford them, and tape dominated the domestic market with either the Apple ][ or the Commodore 16/64/128 introducing the home market to the 5.25″ floppy.

The original IBM PC hosted a Cassette Port as well as the ability to use 5.25″ floppy disks. When the PC/XT came next, the Cassette Port had been deleted, locking the future world into 5.25″ floppy disks.

The Mac showed us the delights of the 3.5″ floppy. HDDs were becoming more affordable and as demand rose, the price continued to fall. These days, there are people who’ve never seen a floppy disk. “Wow! Look! Someone’s 3D-printed the Save Icon.”

Of course, I’ve skipped over many of the “next great thing that didn’t make it” developments, like LS-drives, magneto-optical drives, etc., and moved straight to the CD, CD-R and CD-RW formats which like many of the pioneering steps should have been permanently encased in their own cartridges.

When the DVD format was released, Panasonic released a compatible “RAM drive” which kept the disc in a cartridge. Unfortunately many other manufacturers who licensed the ability to read and write the RAM disc were not forced to maintain the cartridge, which meant that the cartridge had to be opened to use those discs on a PC. This rapidly spelled the death of RAM drive, although you’ll still find “multi-format” DVD burners that read and write DVD-RW, DVD+RW and DVD-RAM.

While Apple has moved to discard the optical drive altogether, encouraging streaming and storage online, it is unrealistic to imagine that in the next years, the net as it is now will able to cope with the level of streaming required, and die hards who are determined to hold a physical copy of the movie/music they have purchased will probably receive a PROM version of a USB stick.

– Just think about it: 16 millions users streaming 4k-UHD content of non-identical material all at the same time. The average ISP will have to operate at Exa-bits per second! Now scale that up to 8k content… Methinks that physical media for large data sets will still be in use for at least the next two decades.

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