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The Birth of Computers -A "Parallel" to Central Processing Unit (CPU) Story

5 February, 2015 - 11:20

"ENIAC, short for Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer, was the first general-purpose electronic computer (July 1946). It was the first Turing-complete, digital computer capable of being reprogrammed to solve a full range of computing problems. ENIAC had twenty ten-digit signed accumulators which used ten's complement representation and could perform 5,000 simple addition or subtraction operations between any of them and a source (e.g., another accumulator, or a constant transmitter) every second. It was possible to connect several accumulators to run simultaneously, so the peak speed of operation was potentially much higher due to parallel operation." (ENIAC from Wikipedia)

Often not understood by many today, the first computer used base 10 arithmetic in the electronics and was a parallel processing machine by using several accumulators to improve the speed. However, this did not last for long. During its construction:

"The First Draft of a Report (commonly shortened to First Draft) on the EDVAC Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer was an incomplete 101 page document written by John von Neumann and distributed on June 30, 1945 by Herman Goldstine, security ofcer on the classifed ENIAC project. It contains the first published description of the logical design of a computer using the stored-program concept, which has come to be known as the von Neumann architecture." (First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC from Wikipedia)

"The von Neumann architecture is a design model for a stored-program digital computer that uses a [central] processing [unit] and a single separate storage structure to hold both instructions and data. It is named after the mathematician and early computer scientist John von Neumann. Such computers implement a universal Turing machine and have a sequential architecture." (Von Neumann architecture from Wikipedia)

Von Neumann also proposed using a binary (base 2) numbering system for the electronics. One of the characteristics of the von Neumann architecture was the trade of of multiple processors using base 10 electronics to a single central processor using base 2 (or digital) electronics. To compare to our ant example, the idea was to use one real fast ant versus 10 slow ants. If one real fast ant can do 1,000 tasks in an hour; it would be more powerful (be able to do more tasks) than 10 ants doing 10 tasks an hour or the equivalent of 100 tasks per hour.

The rest is history most commercially built computers for about the first forty years (1951 to 1991) followed the von Neumann architecture. The electronic engineers keep building more reliable and faster electronics. From vacuum tube, to transistor, to integrated circuit to what we call today "chip" technology. This transformation made computers break down less frequently (they were more reliable), physically smaller, needing less electric power and faster. Personal computers were introduced in the late 1970's and within ten years became more commonly available and used.

One short coming was that most programming eforts were towards improving the linear (or sequential) way of thinking or solving a problem. After all, the computer electronic engineers would be making a faster computer next year. Everyone understood that the computer had only one central processing unit (CPU). Right?