A Brief History of Technology

A Brief History of Technology

A look into how modern computers came about

The thing that distinguishes intelligent life is its ability to solve problems. Since the first use of stone tools in Africa during the Palaeolithic Era, humans have been coming up with new and increasingly inventive ways in which to improve their standards of living. When we think of technology nowadays, we tend to think of computers, science and other such advancements. However, it is very interesting to see how these advancements were brought about in the first place. The past four-hundred years have yielded huge developments in the fields of science (or natural philosophy as it was then known), communications and transportation which together have helped create the world that we are now accustomed to.

The Scientific Revolution

The late 16th century and 17th century saw huge changes in the treatment and attitude towards natural philosophy (science). Before this revolution, natural philosophers merely observed nature: following the revolution they conducted experiments. This may sound like a minor change, but at the time it was a big step forward. Interfering with nature was thought to be ‘unnatural' and many shunned such ideas. There are no exact dates for the period of scientific revolution, but it largely took place during the 17 th century.

The most famous and influential natural philosophers of the time were Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton: During the late 16 th century, Galileo made successful improvements to the telescope, and developed the first law of motion. His work was revolutionary at the time, as it broke away from the more traditional views of Aristotle. Kepler developed his theories at around the same time as Galileo, and it is for his three laws on planetary motion that he is most famous. His laws were correct, despite the fact that Kepler himself did not understand why they were correct. In fact, it was Newton who proved mathematically that Kepler's laws of planetary motion held through his own laws of motion (the law of inertia, the fundamental law of dynamics and the law of reciprocal actions). Like Kepler, Newton is also associated with heliocentricism (the theory that the sun lies at the centre of the universe/solar system).

So what did these new theories do? They started to change they way in which people perceived the world. In previous centuries, it was commonly thought that the earth was the centre of the universe with the sun and stars revolving around it. This was consistent with religious theory, and therefore these new concepts caused conflict between natural philosophers and the church - the Catholic Church being the primary opponent. The new methods of using experiments to make discoveries paved the way for numerous inventions, such as the vacuum pump (von Guericke), the pendulum clock (Huygens) and the steam engine (Savery).

The Industrial Revolution

The scientific revolution paved the way for the industrial revolution in Great Britain during the 18 th and 19 th centuries. The industrial revolution saw the application of theories and approaches developed during the scientific revolution: most importantly, the use of steam to power large-scale machinery. This lead to Great Britain being one of the largest producers of manufactured goods in world markets. Various incremental developments were made to the steam engine by first Papin, then Morland, Savery, Newcomen and Watt. It was Watt who made possibly one of the most important advancements: It made steam engines far more efficient, causing costs to be lower and output to be higher. Steam engines could now be used in a wide range of industries, from pumping water from mines to textile production. Later, the safety valve was added which prevented excess pressure building up to an explosion. This made the whole machine much less hazardous to use.

The use of steam engines in production had huge multiplier effects throughout the country: one example is the increase in newspapers and books printed, which elevated literacy levels and with it the desire for public participation in politics. In addition, a greater separation between work and home-life arose: Women took on the role of homemakers, and men worked. Previously, more of an overlap was present, especially among the poorer classes.

Iron played a major role in the industrial revolution. It provided the building materials for many machines, structures and engines, and was hugely important to the advancement of transport. Abraham Darby came up with the idea to use coke as a fuel for the iron smelting process to replace charcoal (which was a highly costly fuel). Carbon emissions soared as production required more and more fuels to be burnt for energy.

The application of steam power and iron production propelled transportation technology to spectacular levels. The creation of the first steamboat meant that long distances could be travelled over water in a far shorter period of time that was permitted by wind power. The result of this development was that a far larger market became available to producers, and consumers could choose their preferred source. Personal travel grew easier, but only really for the wealthy. The world also saw an increase in migration between countries, for example, from Europe to America . The establishment of the steam railways also opened up new possibilities for trade, but over land rather than sea. This was again made possible by the existence of a strong iron industry (to provide the raw materials) and steam power (to provide the locomotion). Indeed, the demand for railroads was so great that it lead to the creation of industries which produced cheap steel on a large scale.

The state of transportation technology is sometimes measured by how long it takes to complete a journey, i.e. how ‘small' the world has become. By speeding up journey times, the technology of transportation had advanced and thus the world had become ‘smaller'. Some argue that these advancements were the catalysts that lead to the globalisation we know today.

The 20th Century

The 20 th century saw hugely important technological innovations in the fields of medicine, transportation, telecommunications and computing to name but a few. The scientific revolution provided the environment for the industrial revolution, but it was the industrial revolution that elevated society's expectations, thus creating a demand for ‘luxury' technologies. We see the development of these technologies in the 20 th century.

In the 1920's and 1930's much work was done on the development of the Radar (Radio Detection and Ranging), building on the work done by Heinrich Hertz in the late 19 th century. Watson-Watt in particular put much work into creating a device for locating aircraft. The radar was patented in Britain in 1935. In the Second World War Britain benefited hugely from it's prioritisation of radar technology: The use of radar technology was far more widespread than in Germany, as was the use of the required operating systems (it wasn't until later in the war that Germany began to prioritise radar development).

It is still highly debated whether Farnsworth or Zworykin invented the electronic television, but either way it came into being in 1923. In 1927, the first long-distance public broadcast took place between Washington D.C. to New York . In Britain , the BBC started a regular broadcasting service in 1936, and competition in the form of ITV arose in 1955. Further advancements in the technology of TV production meant that they became cheaper and therefore easier for the average household to buy.

A number of incremental innovations lead to the first electronic programmable computer being developed before and during the Second World War, mainly with the aim of deciphering German encryption. It was during this period that mechanical equipment started to be replaced by electronic equivalents. The Colossus computer was a significant development in the field of computing. Designed for cryptanalysis by Tommy Flowers, it used state-of-the-art technology of the time and did its job efficiently.

The Manchester Mark 1 was built in 1949 at the University of Manchester . It was far more flexible than the Colossus, as it could store programs as data in the main memory rather than in the form of hard coding written directly into the machine's wiring.

The creation of the transistor in 1947 earned it's inventors (John Bardeen, Walter Houser Brattain and William Bradford Shockley) the Nobel Prize for physics in 1956. It is considered to be one of the most significant innovations in modern history, as it is a key component of many modern electronics.

So what made the final step and brought us to where we are now? There are several final contributing developments which took place in the latter part of the 20 th Century.

There has been much argument and speculation concerning how the internet came about. One major forerunner to the internet is the Arpanet (the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) which was brought into being by part of the U.S. Department of Defence in 1969. The Arpanet was the first packet switching network in the world, making it a progenitor of the internet. This was a very new and exciting form of communication technology at the time, since previously, similar systems had been based on circuit switching. Packet switching involves data being broken down into packets, which may take different ‘routes' to their destination, but once there reassemble to form the original piece of data. This does not require another person to be at the other end of the circuit (the destination) as was the case with circuit switching.

1971 saw some more important advancements. E-mail was first seen in 1965, but later work by Ray Tomlinson reinvented it in some ways by the introduction of the @ symbol, bringing it closer to how we know it today. E-mailing was greatly facilitated by the Arpanet, and it eventually became the killer application of the Arpanet.

The evolution of the microprocessor caused a great deal of activity in the 1970s. In 1971, Intel released their first ever microprocessor - the 4004, a 4-bit processor made up of only 2,300 transistors. Another important player in the microprocessor market was Texas Instruments (more commonly known as TI). In 1973, they were awarded the patent for the microprocessor. They entered into an agreement with Intel in the 1970s, where Intel paid royalties to TI for the microprocessor patent. Microprocessors evolved enormously over the following years. Notable processors include the 8008 (the first 8-bit microprocessor) and the 8080 (which started the microprocessor revolution).

The first pocket calculator came onto the market in 1971 (the Bowmar 901B), more commonly known as The Bowmar Brain. It cost a massive $240, but within a decade the prices of similar pocket calculators had fallen to a mere $10. During this time the technology involved progressed enormously: Scientific calculators started to emerge with more and more functions. Programmable pocket calculators came on to the market, capable of storing programmes and instructions. As the years went by, calculators had more and more features and were capable of a great deal.

The Ethernet was a step forward from the Arpanet. It was developed in the early 1970s as a method of transferring data over Local Area Networks (LANs). Its emergence is usually attributed to Robert Metcalfe, who wrote a paper with his assistant David Boggs entitled ‘Ethernet: Distributed Packet-Switching for Local Computer Networks'.

The next advancement was the creation of the internet. A major step forward in 1986 was the NSFNet (National Science Foundation Network), created as the backbone of a university network. Even in the 1990s, people had to sign an agreement with them in order to access large parts of the public internet.

Tim Berners-Lee (whose parents were both mathematicians on the Manchester Mark 1 project) is the man responsible for the creation of the World Wide Web (WWW). He saw the potential of hypertext coupled with the internet and in August 1991 he created the first ever website, which has been archived here. From this point onwards, the internet and WWW took on a life of their own. Their own huge advancements made progressions in hardware all the more important. It has indeed made the world a smaller, yet more advanced place.


What is to be learned from all this? Well, take a minute to think about the enormity of what it took for you to be sat at your computer reading this right now… Just think what the world could have been like without it. It makes you realise what amazing discoveries we have yet to look forward to.
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Becky Cunningham
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