The history of computing hardware is the record of the ongoing effort to make computer hardware faster, cheaper, and capable of storing more data.
Computing hardware evolved from machines that needed separate manual action to perform each arithmetic operation, to punched card machines, and then to stored-program computers. The history of stored-program computers relates first to computer architecture, that is, the organization of the units to perform input and output, to store data and to operate as an integrated mechanism . Secondly, this is a history of the electronic components and mechanical devices that comprise these units. Finally, we describe the continuing integration of 21st-century supercomputers, networks, personal devices, and integrated computers/communicators into many aspects of today's society. Increases in speed and memory capacity, and decreases in cost and size in relation to compute power, are major features of the history. As all computers rely on digital storage, and tend to be limited by the size and speed of memory, the history of computer data storage is tied to the development of computers.
Before the development of the general-purpose computer, most calculations were done by humans. Mechanical tools to help humans with digital calculations were then called "calculating machines", by proprietary names, or even as they are now, calculators. It was those humans who used the machines who were then called computers; there are pictures of enormous rooms filled with desks at which computers (often young women) used their machines to jointly perform calculations, as for instance, aerodynamic ones required for in aircraft design.
Calculators have continued to develop, but computers add the critical element of conditional response and larger memory, allowing automation of both numerical calculation and in general, automation of many symbol-manipulation tasks. Computer technology has undergone profound changes every decade since the 1940s.
Computing hardware has become a platform for uses other than mere computation, such as process automation, electronic communications, equipment control, entertainment, education, etc. Each field in turn has imposed its own requirements on the hardware, which has evolved in response to those requirements, such as the role of the touch screen to create a more intuitive and natural user interface.
Aside from written numerals, the first aids to computation were purely mechanical devices which required the operator to set up the initial values of an elementary arithmetic operation, then manipulate the device to obtain the result. A sophisticated (and comparatively recent) example is the slide rule in which numbers are represented as lengths on a logarithmic scale and computation is performed by setting a cursor and aligning sliding scales, thus adding those lengths. Numbers could be represented in a continuous "analog" form, for instance a voltage or some other physical property was set to be proportional to the number. Analog computers, like those designed and built byVannevar Bush before World War II were of this type. Numbers could be represented in the form of digits, automatically manipulated by a mechanical mechanism. Although this last approach required more complex mechanisms in many cases, it made for greater precision of results.
Both analog and digital mechanical techniques continued to be developed, producing many practical computing machines. Electrical methods rapidly improved the speed and precision of calculating machines, at first by providing motive power for mechanical calculating devices, and later directly as the medium for representation of numbers. Numbers could be represented by voltages or currents and manipulated by linear electronic amplifiers. Or, numbers could be represented as discrete binary or decimal digits, and electrically controlled switches and combinational circuits could perform mathematical operations.
The invention of electronic amplifiers made calculating machines much faster than their mechanical or electromechanical predecessors.Vacuum tube (thermionic valve) amplifiers gave way to solid state transistors, and then rapidly to integrated circuits which continue to improve, placing millions of electrical switches (typically transistors) on a single elaborately manufactured piece of semi-conductor the size of a fingernail. By defeating the tyranny of numbers, integrated circuits made high-speed and low-cost digital computers a widespread commodity.