A History of Information Technology and Systems: Part One

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

  1. Writing and Alphabets--communication.
    1. First humans communicated only through speaking and simple drawings known as petroglyths (signs or simple figures carved in rock).

      Many of these are pictographs -- pictures or sketches that visually resemble that which is depicted.

      E.g., cave painting from Lascaux, France, c. 15,000-10,000 BC
      Cave painting from Lascaux, France, c. 15,000-10,000 BC.
      E.g., prehistoric petroglythic imagery from Western U.S.:
      Prehistoric petroglyths.

      Geometric signs (dots, squares, etc.) with no apparent depicted object = ideographs
      symbols to represent ideas or concepts.)
    2. First development of signs corresponding to spoken sounds, instead of pictures, to express words.
      • Starting in c. 3100 B.C., the Sumerians in Mesopotamia (southern Iraq) devised cuneiform -- the first true written language and the first real information system.
        • Pronounced "coo-nay-eh-form"
      • Cuneiform's evolution:
        Early pictographic tablet (3100 B.C.).
        Sumerican pictographic tablet, c. 3100 B.C.
        Pictographs were turned on their sides (2800 B.C.) and then developed into actual cuneiform symbols (2500 B.C.) -- as this clay tablet illustrates.
        Sumerian clay tablet.
        Pictographs for star (which also meant heaven or god), head, and water (on the left) were turned on their side (in the middle), and eventually became cuneiform symbols (on right).

        A cuneiform table (c. 2100 B.C.) listing expenditures of grain and animals.
        Cuneiform tablet, c. 2100 B. C.
      • From this first civilization as we know it today.
    3. Around 2000 B.C., Phoenicians created symbols that expressed single syllables and consonants (the first true alphabet).
    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.
      Early alphabets.
  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 wrote on the papyrus plant
      The final Judgement from the Papyrus of Ani, c. 1420 B. C.
    3. Around 100 A.D., the Chinese made paper from rags, on which modern-day papermaking is based,
  3. Books and Libraries--output technologies (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; c. 1387-1468)
      • 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

Continue to Part Two: The Electronic Age: 1940 - Present.


  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
  5. Microsoft Museum. http://www.microsoft.com/mscorp/museum/home.asp
  6. Philip B. Meggs, A History of Graphic Design, 2nd ed., New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1992.

Last revised: May 24, 2000 8:39 AM
Comments: jbutler@ua.edu