Digital Computers

Digital computers are used in many facets of everyday life. It would be impossible for one tutorial or set to cover all the ways they are used in any depth. A few of these ways are covered later in this section.

The purpose of this section is to acquaint you with the basic principles, techniques, and procedures associated with digital computers. We will use a desktop (personal) computer for most of the examples. Personal computers should be more familiar to you than the large mainframes, and the operating principles of personal computers relate directly to the operating principles of mainframe computers. You will learn the basic terminology used in the digital-computer world. When you have finished reading these sections you will have a better understanding of how computers are able to perform the demanding tasks assigned to them.

If we were to define the word computer, we would say a computer is an instrument for performing mathematical operations, such as addition, multiplication, division, subtraction, integration, vector resolution, coordinate conversion, and special function generation at very high speeds. But the usage of computers goes well beyond the mathematical-operations level.

Computers have made possible military, scientific, and commercial advances that before were considered impossible. The mathematics involved in orbiting a satellite around the earth, for example, would require several teams of mathematicians for a lifetime. Now, with the aid of electronic digital computers, the conquest of space has become reality.

Computers are employed when repetitious calculations or the processing of large amounts of data are necessary. The most frequent applications are found in the military, scientific, and commercial fields. They are used in many varied projects, ranging from mail sorting, through engineering design, to the identification and destruction of enemy targets. The advantages of digital computers include speed, accuracy, reliability, and man-power savings. Frequently computers are able to take over routine jobs, releasing people for more important work; work that cannot be handled by a computer.


The ever increasing need for faster and more efficient computers has created technological advances that can be considered amazing. Ever since humans discovered that it was necessary to count objects, we have been looking for easier ways to do it. Contrary to popular belief, digital computers are not a new idea. The abacus is a manually operated digital computer used in ancient civilizations and used to this day in the Orient (see the picture below). For those who consider the abacus outdated, in a contest between a person using a modern calculator and a person using an abacus, the person using the abacus won.


The first mechanical adding machine (calculator) was invented by Blaise Pascal (French) in 1642. Twenty years later, an Englishman, Sir Samuel Morland, developed a more compact device that could multiply, add, and subtract. In 1682, Wilhelm Liebnitz (German) perfected a machine that could perform all the basic operations (addition, subtraction, division, and multiplication), as well as extract the square root. Liebnitz's principles are still in use today in our modern electronic digital computers.

As early as 1919, electronics entered the scene. An article by W. H. Eccles and F. W. Jordan described an electronic "trigger circuit" that could be used for automatic counting. It was the ECCLES-JORDAN multivibrator which was a little ahead of its time because a trigger circuit is one of many components required to make an electronic digital computer. Modern digital computers use these circuits, known as flip-flops, to store information, perform arithmetic operations, and control the timing sequences within the computer.

Under the pressure of military needs in World War II, the science of electronic data processing made giant strides forward. In 1944, Harvard University developed a computing system known as the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator. After the initial design and construction, several improved models were built.

Meanwhile, at the University of Pennsylvania, a second system was being developed. This system, completed in 1946, was named ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer). ENIAC employed 18,000 vacuum tubes in its circuitry; and in spite of these bulky, hot tubes, it worked quite successfully. The first problem assigned to ENIAC was a calculation in nuclear physics that would have taken 100 human-years to solve by conventional methods.

The ENIAC solved the problem in 2 weeks, only 2 hours of which were actually spent on the calculation. The remainder of the time was spent checking the results and operational details. All modern computers have their basics in these two early developments conducted at Harvard University and University of Pennsylvania.

In 1950, the UNIVAC I was developed. This machine was usually regarded as the most successful electronic data processor of its day. An outstanding feature of the UNIVAC I was that it checked its own results in each step of a problem; thus eliminating the need to run the problems more than once to ensure accuracy.

During the first outbreak of publicity about computers (especially when the UNIVAC predicted the outcome of the 1952 presidential election), the term "giant brain" caused much confusion and uneasiness. Many people assumed that science had created a thinking device superior to the human mind. Currently most people know better. By human standards the giant brain is nothing more than a talented idiot that is wholly dependent upon human instructions to perform even the simplest job.

A computer is only a machine and definitely cannot think for itself. The field of artificial intelligence, however, is developing computer systems that can "think"; that is, mimic human thought in a specific area and improve performance with experience and operation. The field of digital computers is still in the growing stages. New types of circuitry and new ways of accomplishing things are continuing to be developed at a rapid rate.

Computer Classifications

Special Purpose Computers

Digital Computer Generations

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