What did the first computer look like?

Mainframe

Machinery with a future

Back then, computers filled huge halls and weighed tons. We look back at the age of the mainframe, when a computer was still a long way off for everyone.

The size and enormous weight of the computers was mainly due to the still very bulky technology. Switching processes that take place today in miniaturized chips the size of a two-euro coin were carried out around 60 years ago in huge relays and electron tube systems.

The mainframe computers looked like the machines and control units in old science fiction films, in which giant calculators with countless switches and endlessly flashing rows of lights rattle in front of them.

Arithmetic for war

"War is the father of all things." The winged word Heraclitus seems to apply especially to the computer. From the beginning, the military usability of computers has been one of the main driving forces behind computer development. During the First World War, punch card computers took on important logistical tasks, for example in the manufacture of ammunition or food distribution.

The first electronic mainframe computers, on the other hand, were used for ballistic calculations in order to determine the trajectories of projectiles as precisely as possible. In peacetime, the computers were also switched to peacetime economy.

Mainframe computers now took over tasks of mass processing of data that were previously intended for punch card machines, such as the organization of wages and salaries, personnel structures and company accounting. It was always about optimizing operational processes, increasing efficiency and saving costs.

Zuse and other pioneers

Computer experts at the time were highly specialized professionals, of whom there were only a handful in the world. One of the most famous computer pioneers is the German Konrad Zuse.

In 1941 he built the world's first program-controlled computer called the Z3. Zuse worked in Berlin during the turmoil of the war, completely single-handedly, without any exchange with specialists or engineers.

His pioneering work can therefore not be overestimated. A whole range of other model series followed. In Karlsruhe, in the Center for Art and Media Technology (ZKM), there is an original Z22, the only fully functional Zuse in the world that still calculates regularly thanks to loving maintenance.

Gigantic with 17,000 tubes

The name ENIAC has also long been a legend. The ENIAC computer (short for Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) was built on behalf of the US Army from 1942 by J. Presper Eckert and John W. Mauchly. The large computer measured ten by 17 meters and weighed 27 tons. At that time, the ENIAC computer alone had over 17,000 electron tubes, each of which had to be kept operational for a calculation.

History was also made by the Mark I computer, designed in the USA between 1943 and 1944 by Howard H. Aiken of Harvard University, with a weight of 35 tons and a front length of 16 meters.

A project from 1996 shows how spectacular the development of computer technology has been since the age of mainframes: A team of computer science students from Pennsylvania University in Philadelphia (USA) banned the entire computing capacity of ENIAC in the project "ENIAC on a Chip" on a single chip that was just six by six millimeters!

Status: 23.07.2019, 4:15 p.m.