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  • August 15, 2019
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Top Ten Most Influential Computers Since 1940

The following 10 computers are the most influential computers created since 1940, which is when programmable, electronic computers first began to emerge. They range in chronology from the first programmable computer in 1941 to the first commercial computer with a window-based GUI in 1981.

Two interesting (and potentially related) threads to follow throughout the list are how leadership in the development of computing technologies shifted from Britain to the United States after the 1950s, and how much of a role the government had in the advancement of these technologies compared to the private sector.

Also of note is the fact that there is a 20 year gap in the list after the IBM 650 in 1953, and then a 30 year gap between the Apple Macintosh in 1984 and today. Though there were some notable developments in computing technology during these years, I felt that they weren’t as important as the other developments mentioned in the list.

Now, without any further ado:

Z3 (1941)

The Z3 was the first programmable digital computer. It was developed by Konrad Zuse in Berlin, and used by the German Aircraft Research Institute. The Z3 could perform additions in .8 seconds and multiplications in 3 seconds. It weighed 2,200 pounds. The computer was destroyed in an Allied bombing raid in December 1943.

Colossus (1943)

The Colossus Mark 1 was the first electronic programmable digital computer. It was used by the British solely for the purpose of decrypting German military communications. The computer was 17ft long, 7.4ft wide, and 11ft deep and weighed five tons. To maintain the secrecy of the project, all 10 Colossi were destroyed after the end of the war, along with all of their blueprints and other documentation. In 2007, a working replica of the Colossus Mark 2 required 3.5 hours to decode an encrypted radio message that a laptop with a 1.4 GHz processor was able to decrypt in a mere 46 seconds.

ENIAC (1946)

The Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer (ENIAC) was the first general-purpose electronic computer. It was built by University of Pennsylvania engineers for use by the Ballistic Research Laboratory of the United States Army. The computer was massive—it took up 1,800 square feet and weighed over 30 tons. Unlike the hardware of the Z3 and the Colossi, some of the hardware of the original ENIAC was preserved and are currently on display at the Smithsonian and the University of Pennsylvania, among other places.

SSEM/Ferranti Mark 1 (1948, 1951)

The Small-Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM) was the first stored-program computer. It was developed by British engineers at the University of Manchester. The point of the SSEM was to test the feasibility of using cathode ray tubes as a form of electronic data storage. It was the first computer to use software to complete an operation. The engineers that built the SSEM also later developed the Ferranti Mark 1, the first commercially-available general-purpose electronic computer, which had many of the same components and features as the SSEM.

LEO I (1951)

The Lyons Electronic Office (LEO) I was the first computer to be used for business purposes. J.Lyons and Co. was a food manufacturer and owner of a chain of teashops in Britain. LEO I was partially based on the University of Cambridge’s Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator (EDSAC) computer, which was built using funding and technical assistance from the company. J. Lyons and Co. manufactured the LEO I internally and used it mainly for advanced accounting tasks. More than twice the size of the ENIAC, it took up 5,000 square feet.

IBM 650 (1953)

The IBM 650 was the first mass-produced computer. IBM built about 2,000 of the computers between 1953 and 1962. Each one cost about $169,600 and weighed between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds. Notable buyers of the IBM 650 included Bell Telephone, Bethlehem Steel, Boeing, Chrysler, General Electric, Grumman, Hughes Aircraft Company, Lockheed, MIT, McDonnell, NASA, Stanford University, and the United States Navy. These organizations used the computer for data storage and analysis.

Micral N (1973)

The Micral N was the first pre-assembled commercial personal computer with a microprocessor. It was developed by a French engineer for France’s National Institute of Agronomic Research. It was then made commercially available at the cost of $1,750. The microprocessor used in the Micral N was the 500 kHz Intel 8008.

Apple II/Commodore PET/TRS-80 (1977)

The Apple II, Commodore PET, and TRS-80 were the three most popular computers of the first generation of “appliance computers,” i.e., computers that don’t require any further assembly after purchase and are simple enough to be used by the average consumer. They all had at least 4 kB RAM, at least a 1 MHz CPU, and an integrated keyboard and cassette storage. The Commodore PET ($795) had a built-in 9 inch screen; the TRS-80 came with a 12 inch monitor and cost only $599.95; and the Apple II didn’t come with a monitor and cost $1298, but it had color graphics, eight expansion ports, and supported the first affordable spreadsheet application, VisiCalc.

Osborne 1/Epson HX-20 (1981)

The Osborne 1 was the first portable commercial computer—portable meaning that it was relatively easy to carry and had all of its crucial components built-in. It had a 4 MHz CPU, 64 kB RAM, two integrated floppy drives, and a 5 inch monitor. It weighed 23.5 pounds and cost $1,795. The Epson HX-20, however, was the first portable computer that could be considered a “laptop” in today’s terms. The HX-20 weighed only 3.5 pounds and ran on rechargeable batteries (the Osborne 1 had to be plugged in to an outlet). It cost $795 and had two 614 kHz CPUs, 16 kB RAM, a microcassette drive, and a built-in printer.

Xerox Star/Apple Macintosh (1981, 1984)

The Xerox Star was the first commercial personal computer to include many of the elements that we associate with the desktop PC today, including a mouse, a windows-based graphical user interface (GUI), icons, folders, and menus. The Star wasn’t the first computer to have many of these features; many of them were developed by engineers at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) and the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in the 1960s and ‘70s. Despite its innovativeness, the Star didn’t sell very well, perhaps due to its hefty price tag ($16,000). The Apple Macintosh, released in 1984 and priced at $2,500, was the first commercially-successful personal computer with a mouse-based GUI.


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