A History of Information Technology and Systems

A. The Premechanical Age: 3000 B.C. - 1450 A.D.

  1. Writing and Alphabets--communication.
    1. First humans communicated only through speaking and picture drawings.
    2. 3000 B.C., the Sumerians in Mesopotamia (what is today southern Iraq) devised cuniform
    3. Around 2000 B.C., Phoenicians created symbols
    4. The Greeks later adopted the Phoenician alphabet and added vowels; the Romans gave the letters Latin names to create the alphabet we use today.
  2. Paper and Pens--input technologies.
    1. Sumerians' input technology was a stylus that could scratch marks in wet clay.
    2. About 2600 B.C., the Egyptians write on the papyrus plant
    3. around 100 A.D., the Chinese made paper from rags, on which modern-day papermaking is based.
  3. Books and Libraries: Permanent Storage Devices.
    1. Religious leaders in Mesopotamia kept the earliest "books"
    2. The Egyptians kept scrolls
    3. Around 600 B.C., the Greeks began to fold sheets of papyrus vertically into leaves and bind them together.
  4. The First Numbering Systems.
    1. Egyptian system:
      • The numbers 1-9 as vertical lines, the number 10 as a U or circle, the number 100 as a coiled rope, and the number 1,000 as a lotus blossom.
    2. The first numbering systems similar to those in use today were invented between 100 and 200 A.D. by Hindus in India who created a nine-digit numbering system.
    3. Around 875 A.D., the concept of zero was developed.
  5. The First Calculators: The Abacus.
    One of the very first information processors.

B. The Mechanical Age: 1450 - 1840

  1. The First Information Explosion.
    1. Johann Gutenberg (Mainz, Germany)
      • Invented the movable metal-type printing process in 1450.
    2. The development of book indexes and the widespread use of page numbers.
  2. The first general purpose "computers"
  3. Slide Rules, the Pascaline and Leibniz's Machine.
  4. Babbage's Engines
    Charles Babbage (1792-1871), eccentric English mathematician
    Charles Babbage

C. The Electromechanical Age: 1840 - 1940.

The discovery of ways to harness electricity was the key advance made during this period. Knowledge and information could now be converted into electrical impulses.

  1. The Beginnings of Telecommunication.
    1. Voltaic Battery.
      • Late 18th century.
    2. Telegraph.
      • Early 1800s.
    3. Morse Code.
      • Developed in1835 by Samuel Morse
      • Dots and dashes.
    4. Telephone and Radio.
      • History of the telephone
        Alexander Graham Bell.
      • 1876
    5. Followed by the discovery that electrical waves travel through space and can produce an effect far from the point at which they originated.
    6. These two events led to the invention of the radio
      • Guglielmo Marconi
      • 1894
  2. Electromechanical Computing
    1. Herman Hollerith and IBM.
      Herman Hollerith (1860-1929) in 1880.
      Herman Hollerith
      Census Machine.
      Holleritch's machine
      Early punch cards.
      Hollerith's machine, detail.Punch card diagram
      Punch card workers.
      Punch card workers.
      • By 1890
      • The International Business Machines Corporation (IBM).
        • Its first logo
          IBM logo
    2. Mark 1.
      Mark 1
      Paper tape stored data and program instructions.
      Mark 1 paper tape (detail)Mark 1 paper tape contraption
      • Howard Aiken, a Ph.D. student at Harvard University
      • Built the Mark I
        • Completed January 1942
        • 8 feet tall, 51 feet long, 2 feet thick, weighed 5 tons, used about 750,000 parts

D. The Electronic Age: 1940 - Present.

  1. First Tries.
  2. Eckert and Mauchly.
    1. The First High-Speed, General-Purpose Computer Using Vacuum Tubes:
      Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC)

      The ENIAC team (Feb 14, 1946). Left to right: J. Presper Eckert, Jr.; John Grist Brainerd; Sam Feltman; Herman H. Goldstine; John W. Mauchly; Harold Pender; Major General G. L. Barnes; Colonel Paul N. Gillon.
      ENIAC team
      ENIAC - Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer
      Rear view (note vacuum tubes).
      ENIAC (rear view)
      • Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC)
        • 1946.
        • Used vacuum tubes (not mechanical devices) to do its calculations.
          • Hence, first electronic computer.
        • Developers John Mauchly, a physicist, and J. Prosper Eckert, an electrical engineer
          • The Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania
        • Funded by the U.S. Army.
        • But it could not store its programs (its set of instructions)
    2. The First Stored-Program Computer(s)
      The Manchester University Mark I (prototype).
      Manchester University Mark I
      • Early 1940s, Mauchly and Eckert began to design the EDVAC - the Electronic Discreet Variable Computer.
      • John von Neumann's influential report in June 1945:
        • "The Report on the EDVAC"
      • British scientists used this report and outpaced the Americans.
        • Max Newman headed up the effort at Manchester University
          • Where the Manchester Mark I went into operation in June 1948--becoming the first stored-program computer.
        • Maurice Wilkes, a British scientist at Cambridge University, completed the EDSAC (Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator) in 1949--two years before EDVAC was finished.
          • Thus, EDSAC became the first stored-program computer in general use (i.e., not a prototype).
    3. The First General-Purpose Computer for Commercial Use: Universal Automatic Computer (UNIVAC).
      UNIVAC publicity photo.
      UNIVAC publicity shot
      • Late 1940s, Eckert and Mauchly began the development of a computer called UNIVAC (Universal Automatic Computer)
        • Remington Rand.
        • First UNIVAC delivered to Census Bureau in 1951.
      • But, a machine called LEO (Lyons Electronic Office) went into action a few months before UNIVAC and became the world's first commercial computer.
  3. The Four Generations of Digital Computing.
    1. The First Generation (1951-1958).Vacuum tubes
      1. Vacuum tubes as their main logic elements.
      2. Punch cards to input and externally store data.
      3. Rotating magnetic drums for internal storage of data and programs
        • Programs written in
          • Machine language
          • Assembly language
            • Requires a compiler.
    2. The Second Generation (1959-1963).Transistors
      1. Vacuum tubes replaced by transistors as main logic element.
        • AT&T's Bell Laboratories, in the 1940s
        • Crystalline mineral materials called semiconductors could be used in the design of a device called a transistor
      2. Magnetic tape and disks began to replace punched cards as external storage devices.
      3. Magnetic cores (very small donut-shaped magnets that could be polarized in one of two directions to represent data) strung on wire within the computer became the primary internal storage technology.
        • High-level programming languages
          • E.g., FORTRAN and COBOL
    3. The Third Generation (1964-1979).
      Computer chipChip, one 1/100 of inch
      Typical mainframe computer set-up circa 1967
      1. Individual transistors were replaced by integrated circuits.
      2. Magnetic tape and disks completely replace punch cards as external storage devices.
      3. Magnetic core internal memories began to give way to a new form, metal oxide semiconductor (MOS) memory, which, like integrated circuits, used silicon-backed chips.
        • Operating systems
        • Advanced programming languages like BASIC developed.
          • Which is where Bill Gates and Microsoft got their start in 1975.
    4. The Fourth Generation (1979- Present).
      1. Large-scale and very large-scale integrated circuits (LSIs and VLSICs)
      2. Microprocessors that contained memory, logic, and control circuits (an entire CPU = Central Processing Unit) on a single chip.
        • Which allowed for home-use personal computers or PCs, like the Apple (II and Mac) and IBM PC.
          • Apple II released to public in 1977, by Stephen Wozniak and Steven Jobs.
            • Initially sold for $1,195 (without a monitor); had 16k RAM.
          • First Apple Mac released in 1984.
          • IBM PC introduced in 1981.
            • Debuts with MS-DOS (Microsoft Disk Operating System)
        • Fourth generation language software products
          • E.g., Visicalc, Lotus 1-2-3, dBase, Microsoft Word, and many others.
          • Graphical User Interfaces (GUI) for PCs arrive in early 1980s
            • MS Windows 1985
              MS Windows debuts in 1983, but is quite a clunker.
              • Windows wouldn't take off until version 3 was released in 1990
            • Apple Mac 1984
              Apple's GUI (on the first Mac) debuts in 1984.


  1. Kenneth C. Laudon, Carol Guercio Traver, Jane P. Laudon, Information Technology and Systems, Cambridge, MA: Course Technology, 1996.
  2. Stan Augarten, BIT By BIT: An Illustrated History of Computers (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1984).
  3. R. Moreau, The Computer Comes of Age: The People, the Hardware, and the Software, translated by J. Howlett (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1984).
  4. Telephone History Web Site. http://www.cybercomm.net/~chuck/phones.html, accessed 1998.
  5. Microsoft Museum. http://www.microsoft.com/mscorp/museum/home.asp, accessed 1998.

Originally developed as a lecture for MAR 203 Concepts in New Media, a course at the University of Arizona, summer 1997, by Jeremy G. Butler. Copyrights of these images are held by their original creators.

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Last revised: July 13, 1998