This is the journey of the computer from the abacus to the iPhone.
Ever since ancient times, humanity has built problem-solving tools. In the beginning, those were crude weapons for hunting food. Gradually though, we began developing contraptions that weren’t aimed at killing other living beings.
As our ancestors transformed from hunter-gathering to agriculture societies, their focus shifted. Humanity invented the written word. It began trading. It built cities and impressive feats of architecture. It needed devices capable of solving number-related problems.
The first proto computing tools were born. Simple contraptions, pebbles on sand. Then a portable mechanical calculator, known as the abacus. As mechanics and engineering thrived during the age of enlightenment, the first mechanical computers were born—impressive apparatuses, able to perform surprisingly complex calculations.
The quantum shift took place after the invention of vacuum tubes and, later, transistors. This allowed the construction of electronic computers. Digital tools that changed humanity from the ground up. Today, we take for granted the powerful computers we carry around in our pockets.
We often forget that it took thousands of years to reach this point, and it all started with a simple abacus…
2700 – 2300 BC: The abacus is actualized
The oldest mentions of the abacus appear, and it was first used in Ancient Mesopotamia.
100 – 400: The Hindu-Arabic numeral system is invented
Indian mathematicians invent the number system we use today. The system is later adopted by Arabic mathematicians who bring it to Europe.
628: First mathematical treatment of zero
Indian astronomer and mathematician Brahmagupta creates rules for the use of zero.
1502: Leonardo da Vinci designs the first mechanical calculator
Leonardo da Vinci invents the mechanical calculator. Researchers have not found any device, however, only his drawings.
1614: The Logarithm is proposed
John Napier, a Scottish mathematician, invents logarithms and mentions the function in his book Mirifici Logarithmorum Canonis Descriptio (Description of the Wonderful Rule of Logarithms).
1617: Napier’s Bones is created
John Napier creates Napier’s Bones, a manual calculating device. He bases the device on the lattice multiplication method.
1620–1630: Oughtred’s slide rule is invented
William Oughtred invents the slide rule, a mechanical analog computer based on the logarithmic scale.
1642: Pascal creates the first mechanical calculator
Blaise Pascal was the first to construct a finished mechanical calculator. Wilhelm Schickard made a mechanical calculator prototype in 1623 but abandoned the project one year later and never finished his design.
1672: The stepped reckoner is invented
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a German mathematician, invents the stepped reckoner in 1672. It is the first mechanical calculator to perform all four arithmetic operations – addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.
1714: Earliest patent describing a typewriter
Henry Milt, an English inventor, submitted the patent for a typing device that is very similar to modern typewriters. He allegedly also created one.
1803: Invention of the Jacquard Machine
Joseph Marie Jacquard develops the Jacquard Machine for use as a mechanical device in the manufacturing of textile. The machine used punched cards which will be the basis for early programming techniques.
1819 – 1837: Babbage creates difference and analytical engines
English mathematician Charles Babbage invents difference and analytical engines as mechanical computers. The analytical engine was the first based on the logical structure that is nearly identical to modern computers.
1820: Invention of the Arithmometer
Thomas de Colmar invents and patents the Arithmometer, the first digital mechanical calculator.
1820: Introduction of Boolean algebra
George Boole proposes Boolean algebra in his book The Mathematical Analysis of Logic. Boolean Algebra is a branch of algebra-based on true and false variables marked by 1 and 0. It would become the foundation on which all electronic digital computers work.
1865: Invention of the first commercial typewriter
Rasmus Malling-Hansen, a Danish inventor, invents the Hansen Writing Ball, the first commercial typewriter. It went into production in 1870.
1874: Remington No. 1, the first commercially successful typewriter enters production
Designed by Christopher Latham Sholes and manufactured by E. Remington and Sons, the Remington No. 1 introduces the QWERTY keyboard design.
1887: Dorr E. Felt files a patent for the Comptometer
The Comptometer is the first commercially successful key-driven mechanical calculator. 1887
1890: Invention of the tabulating machine
Herman Hollerith invents the tabulating machine. This electromechanical machine was used for data processing. It stored information on punched cards through the keypunch.
1904 – 1907: Inventions of the diode and triode
John Ambrose Fleming invents the simplest vacuum tube, the diode. It becomes the most critical component of electronic circuits during the first part of the 20th century. A few years later, Lee De Forest invented triode, the first electronic amplifier.
Early 1900s: Invention of teleprinters
Many different inventors contribute to the invention of the first teleprinter. This device simplified the exchange of messages by having regular keyboards instead of requiring knowledge of Morse code.
1911: Foundation of IBM
Charles Ranlett Flint and Thomas J. Watson Sr. found IBM, which has become one of the biggest tech companies in the world. IBM also first coins the term personal computer.
1926: Filing of the first transistor patent
Julius Edgar Lilienfeld files a patent for the first transistor in Canada in 1925. The field-effect transistor (FET) would later become the foundation piece of all microchips.
1936: Alan Turing proposes the Turing Machine
English scientist Alan Turing proposes the model of the universal machine. It is a mathematical model of computation that predicts electronic computers and later named The Turing Machine.
1937: Shannon’s A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits is finished
Claude E. Shannon, one of the pioneers of computer science, completes his master thesis, A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits. It proves that Boolean algebra could be used in electrical switches. This notion is the basic concept used in all electronic digital computer designs.
1939: Construction of Atanasoff–Berry Computer prototype
John Vincent Atanasoff and Clifford Berry invent the Atanasoff–Berry Computer. It’s the first electronic computer incorporating vacuum tubes for digital computation. Based on binary math and Boolean logic, it can calculate an operation every 15 seconds and store information on its regenerative capacitor memory.
1943 – 1945: Construction of Colossus
This set of computers is built and used by the British codebreakers. It is essential to break the Lorenz cipher’s cryptanalysis, which allowed them to read encrypted German Army messages during World War II.
1945: Construction of the ENIAC
The ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) is the first electronic digital computer used for general-purpose problem-solving. It is designed by John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert of the University of Pennsylvania, US.
1947: Invention of the first transistor
John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley invent the first point-contact transistor and later on enables the invention of microchips.
1947: Booth invents assembling language
Kathleen Booth starts theoretical work on assembly language and finishes a few years after.
1949: Construction of the EDVAC
The EDVAC (Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer) was another electronic digital computer. Instead of being decimal, like the ENIAC, it was binary. It is the first computer that stored program instructions in its electronic memory. It kept programs on plugboards or similar mechanical systems.
1951: Construction of the UNIVAC I
The designers of the ENIAC also create the UNIVAC (Universal Automatic Computer). The first electronic computer used for business applications.
1953: The IBM 701 is released
IBM builds the IBM 701, the first mass-produced computer with Nathaniel Rochester as the main designer.
1956: IBM invents the first commercial hard drive
Engineers at IBM invent the first commercially available hard drive with capacity of 5 MB.
1958: First integrated circuit is created
Jack Bilby and Robert Noyce create the first integrated circuit. Theoretical work by G.W.A. Dummer greatly contributes to the design.
1950s: Birth of programming languages
Computer scientists invent the first programming languages. They are based on machine language and mathematical formulas until Grace Hopper proposes a programming language based on English. Her work is later used for the development of COBOL, one of the earliest high-level programming languages.
1963: Invention of the first mouse
Douglass Engelbart, a US inventor and engineer, invents the first computer mouse.
1963: First prototype of the modern computer system presented
Douglass Engelbart presents a prototype of the modern computer system. The system features the three main components of modern desktop computers – the keyboard, mouse, and graphic user interface (GUI) – that we are familiar with today.
1965: Moore’s Law is first proposed
Gordon Moore’s observation is that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit double about every two years. This became the basis of Moore’s Law.
1968: Founding of Intel
Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce found Intel in Mountain View, California, it later becomes the world’s largest semiconductor chip manufacturer.
1969: Creation of UNIX
Bell Labs develop UNIX, the first operating system that works on multiple platforms.
1970: Intel releases the first DRAM chip
Intel releases the first DRAM chip, the 1103.
1970: Release of the first commercial microprocessor
Intel releases the first commercially available microprocessor in 1971. The 4004 runs at 740 kHz and is built in a 10µm production process. The engineering team behind it consists of Federico Faggin, Marcian Hoff, Stanley Mazor, and Masatoshi Shima.
1971: IBM releases the first commercial floppy disk
IBM’s first floppy disk is 8 inches in diameter and holds 80 kilobytes of data.
1973 – 1974: Development of ethernet
Xerox PARC develops the ethernet. The leading engineer on the project was Robert Metcalfe. Ethernet allows connecting multiple computers in one local network.
1973: Xerox Alto, the first computer supporting GUI, is released
A decade before the Apple Lisa, Xerox releases the Xerox Alto. It is the first commercially available computer supporting a Graphical User Interface (GUI).
1975: Founding of Microsoft
Bill Gates and Paul Allen found Microsoft with Gates as CEO.
1976: Founding of Apple
Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak found Apple. That same year Apple releases the Apple I, the first computer with a single circuit board.
1976: Release of the Electric Pencil
Michael Shrayer’s Electric Pencil is the first word processor for home computers.
1977: Release of Apple II
Apple launches the Apple II computer in 1977. It is one of the first successful home computers and the first computer commercially sold by Apple.
1979: Release of the first spreadsheet computer program, VisiCalc
Software Arts releases VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet computer program and is a massive success. It is available exclusive for Apple II and considered its killer app.
1981: IBM releases its first personal computer, which ran MS-DOS
IBM releases the Acorn personal computer in 1981, starting the PC era. The computer uses the MS-DOS operating system made by Microsoft.
1981: Unveiling of the first commercial laptop
The Osborne Computer Corporation releases the Osborne 1, the first commercially available laptop. The laptop didn’t have a battery and had to be constantly plugged in a power socket.
1983: Apple releases Apple Lisa
Apple Lisa is one of the first home computers that is GUI based. It was a relative flop, mostly thanks to its $10,000 price.
1984: Apple releases the first Macintosh computer
Apple releases Macintosh in 1984 and the first computer to feature a mouse.
1984: Launch of the first PDA
Psion Organizer is officially the first Personal Device Assistant (PDA). While looks more like a calculator itt features an electronic diary and address book.
1984: RC-1000 Wrist Terminal launches
Seiko launches the world’s first smartwatch with a small LCD screen and memo and calculator capabilities.
Microsoft releases Windows 1.0 to run as a front end on top of MS-DOS 2.0.
1985: Intel releases the 80386 processor
The 80386 is Intel’s first true 32-bit processor. It was considered extremely high-end CPU at the time and ran at 12-40 MHz.
1985: Registration of the first dot-com domain
A company called Symbolics registers the first dot-com domain, symbolycs.com.
1989: Launch of the GRIDPad 1900, the first commercially successful tablet computer
GRiD Systems releases the GRIDPad 1900, the first commercially successful tablet computer. The computer featured touchscreen and handwriting recognition.
1990: Invention of HTML
Tim Berners-Lee invents HTML (HyperText Markup Language), the building block of the internet.
1990: Launch of the first internet browser
Tim Berners-Lee creates the first internet browser for the NeXT computer. He calls it WorldWideWeb.
1990: Microsoft Office for Windows launches
The first Microsoft Office suite launches with Word, Excel, And PowerPoint for Windows 3.0.
1991: Launch of the first commercial SSD
SunDisk creates the first commercially available Solid-State Drive (SSD). It had a 20 MB capacity and a price of around $1,000.
1992: IBM releases the Simon Personal Calculator, the first smartphone
The Simon Personal Calculator features PDA functions but also takes calls. It was huge and featured a large, 4.5-inch monochrome touchscreen.
1992: IBM announces the first ThinkPad laptop
IBM announces its new line of laptop computers dubbed ThinkPad. The ThinkPad line would later become one of the most popular laptop lines in the world.
1993: Apple releases the Apple Newton
The Apple Newton is the first to be commercially advertised as a PDA. It features a touchscreen and supported handwriting recognition. Its design inspires engineers for future PDA devices and smartphones.
1993: Intel releases the first Pentium processor
The first Pentium processor is based on the P5 microarchitecture and starts one of the most popular CPU lines of all time.
1993: Release of the NSCA Mosaic web browser
The NSCA Mosaic web browser is responsible for popularizing the Internet. It is the first web browser capable of showing images. It works on many platforms and supported multiple internet protocols.
1995: Windows 95 is unveiled
Windows 95 becomes a major commercial success and helps secure Microsoft’s dominance in computer desktops.
1997: Google Search launched
Larry Page and Sergey Brin launch the Google search engine and officially incorporate Google one year later.
1999: Kyocera releases the first camera phone
The Visual Phone VP-210 debuts in Japan with a .11-megapixel camera and can store up to 20 photos.
1999: Nvidia releases the GeForce 256
The GeForce 256 is the first commercially available consumer-grade graphics card and begins the GeForce line. It fully supports DirectX 7 and is marketed as “the world’s first GPU.”
2001: Windows XP and Mac OS X launch
Apple launches the Mac OS X operating system first. It brings many improvements and new features and the name is still in use by Apple. Microsoft launches Windows XP the same year. This is arguably the most popular Windows OS ever.
2002: Nokia releases first devices featuring Symbian S60 Operating system
The first worldwide popular smartphone OS is the Symbian S60. It is developed by Nokia and it made smartphones mainstream.
2003: AMD introduces the Athlon 64, the first commercially available 64-bit processor
AMD releases the Athlon 64 to great success. The CPU outperforms the Pentium 4 and ran at a max clock speed of 3.2 GHz.
2005: AMD and Intel release the first dual-core CPU aimed at the consumer market
Both AMD and Intel release their first mainstream dual-core processors. The key difference was that the Athlon 64 X2 was a native dual-core CPU while the Pentium D wasn’t.
2005: Launch of YouTube
Steve Chen, Chad Hurley, and Jawed Karim found YouTube. The service sees massive growth during its first year. Google buys YouTube in 2006.
2007: Amazon releases the first Kindle
Amazon releases the Kindle and revolutionizes the way we read books.
2007: Apple unveils the first iPhone
It features a 3.5-inch screen and operating system made from the ground up for touchscreen. The device would popularize smartphones like no other smartphone before. Ultimately, the iPhone would become the most popular phone model in the world.
2008: Google and HTC launch HTC Dream, the first Android phone
After acquiring Android in 2005, Google completely redesigns the operating system. Triggered by the success of the iPhone which featured a simple, touchscreen-based OS. Three years later Google releases the world’s first Android phone, the HTC Dream, also known as HTC G1. HTC, then the biggest smartphone manufacturer besides Apple, was responsible for the design and manufacture.
2008: Apple releases the MacBook Air
Apple revolutionizes laptop design. The device doesn’t feature a DVD ROM, which became standard in the following years.
2010: Apple releases the iPad
The iPad is predicted by many market analysts to bring doom to PCs. That doesn’t happen but tablet computers become a common thing in many households.
2014 – 2015: Smartwatches resurface
While smartwatches existed since the 1980’s they only resurface now. The Moto 360 is one of the first successful models. Smartwatches enter the mainstream with the release of the first Apple Watch in 2015.
2015: Microsoft released Windows 10
Windows 10 quickly became the most popular OS in the world. Microsoft switches to the Software as a Service (SaaS) business model meaning Windows 10 could be the last version of Windows ever.
2020: Apple announces iPad Pro with trackpad support
The iPad Pro has both trackpad and keyboard support. It could lead to tablets finally replacing laptops in the coming years.