Three weeks ago, I began a series on computing laws and promised I would propose a law of my own in the final article of the series. The time has come to introduce Hamilton’s Law, “The Circle of Life,” which is meant to show my observation of the cyclical nature of computing platforms and how we have completed what I believe to be the first of many cycles in computer development.
The first computers known in history were probably better classified as memory devices rather than calculation-based devices. The first known was the abacus, which was used primarily for counting and tracking large numbers without having to record them on paper. It could store a single number. The next early computer was the slide rule, which basically was a method of reducing a large table of lookup values like sine and cosine, square roots, and other hard to calculate values in a small form factor. The calculations were still primarily done by people.
In the 1930s computers were people hired to do computation on paper, usually several “computers” worked the same complex problem and the results were compared to check for accuracy. In the 1940’s we began to build very large vacuum tube-based computers the size of houses that could only handle a few bits of information (30-bits), and which could only effectively handle a single 10-digit number at a time.
The 1950s brought about the first large scale universal computer. Universal, meaning it was not limited to simple arithmetic and logic functions but could solve much more complex problems. The Univac was a vacuum tube-based computer roughly 1000 times more powerful than the code breaking computers of the 1940s. It could handle calculation and storage of up to 1000 12-digit numbers.
The 1960s brought about the first transistor-based computers, which allowed the size to go from the size of a building to the size of refrigerator. We were still far from a portable device, or even a home computer, but we were getting closer. The first transistor-based computers were smaller and more powerful once again by about 1000 times over the prior decade.
The 1970s brought with it a lot of exciting things for the general public. Before the 1970s only government organizations and large academic institutions had access to computers. In 1970 the internet was born, allowing these institutional computers to communicate with each other. Methods of putting multiple transistors into a single device, called an integrated circuit (IC), came into production, and computers got even smaller. By the mid 1970s you could by an IC-based desk calculator that could do everything the computers in the 1930s could do and then some. These desk calculators were able to be carried in one hand but used too much power to be portable and needed to be plugged in to operate.
The 1980s brought the first true computers into the home. It was the era of the home computer. They had exceeded the computing power of the Univac and were small enough to be placed on or under a desk. It was not until the 1990s that computers got both light enough and efficient enough to become portable. They were still the size of a brief case but affordable enough that most middle-class families could buy one if they were interested. The World Wide Web was born in the 1990s, allowing people to share information openly from their computers.
The 2000s were the beginning of the portable computing era. Computers were finally small enough and efficient enough to be carried in one hand, or even a pocket. They were battery powered and could last a few hours without a charge. Wireless networks were coming about, allowing us to utilize the web without being connected to a wire. Yet there was more to come.
The 2010s have been the era of the ultraportable computers. The iPhone, tablets, Apple watches, Fit-bits, and other wearable computers came out. I remember in the early ‘80s talking about how some day we would have computers everywhere, but I never imagined computers fitting in a watch.
Looking to the future is where we see the cycle begin again; over the last few years technology to develop quantum computers has taken hold and the 2020s will be the year of the quantum computer. The leading quantum computer has 30-qubits, exactly the same as the 30-bit 1940s system. It also weighs nearly the same, and takes nearly the same amount of space. We are in hopes that the quantum computing cycle will move faster than the digital cycle discussed above, or we will be waiting until the year 2100 for portable quantum computers. We have traveled full circle back to early technology; granted these quantum computing systems are infinitely more capable than the current digital systems, just as the current digital systems are infinitely more capable than the early analog systems. We are just beginning with the technology to build them. Look forward to next week when I talk about quantum computing and what it means for you.