November 24, 2012 9:26 am

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You’ve probably known about computers your whole life. But computers have not really been around for very long. Computers started to become popular with big companies in the 1960s. Computers didn’t become widespread in homes and schools until the 1980s.
People use computers in many ways. Stores use computers to keep track of products and check you out at the cash register. Banks use computers to send money all over the world.
Computers help teachers keep track of lessons and grades. They help students do research and learn. Computers let you hook up to networks (many computers hooked together). They let you hook up to a worldwide network called the Internet.
Scientists use computers to solve research problems. Engineers use computers to make cars, trucks, and airplanes. Architects use computers to design houses and other buildings. The police use computers to track down criminals. The military uses computers to make and read coded messages.
Computers are not just desktops and laptops. Computers are everywhere around your home. There are tiny computers inside microwave ovens, television sets, and videocassette recorders (VCRs) or digital video disc (DVD) players. There are even tiny computers in cars to help them run better.
Computers need hardware and software in order to work. Your desktop or laptop and all the parts inside are called hardware. The central processing unit (CPU) makes the computer work. The keyboard, mouse, printer, and monitor are also pieces of computer hardware.
Memory chips are hardware that stores information and instructions. Information also gets stored on the hard disk drive.
The programs that run the computer are called software. The computer operating system is software that tells the computer how to run. Applications or programs are software that do certain tasks. Word-processing programs, for example, let you write school reports and letters.
One reason that computers can do so much is that they have a special language that tells them what to do. Computer language has only two letters: zeros and ones. Computers can read these ones and zeros extremely quickly.
Each zero or one is called a bit. Eight zeros and ones together are called a byte. Bits and bytes get stored in computer memory chips. Every year, computer engineers make chips that can hold more bytes. The chips can hold more information. Programmers can write applications that can do more things.
Many inventions have contributed to the development of modern computers. French mathematician Blaise Pascal and other inventors in the 1600s began making machines that could add and subtract numbers. Wheels, levers, and other moving parts made these machines work. In the 1800s, British mathematicians Charles Babbage and Augusta Ada Byron, countess of Lovelace, worked on plans for machines that could store information on cards with holes punched in them.
American inventor Herman Hollerith made a machine that automatically totaled population figures for the 1890 United States census. His company joined with other companies to become International Business Machines (IBM) in 1924. Other inventors built better computers. But none of these early computers were digital—that is, none used the digits zero and one.
The first digital computer, called ENIAC, was built in the 1940s. It was huge. It was as big as a house. It had more than 18,000 glass tubes inside and weighed more than five elephants.
The first computer used by business was called UNIVAC. Big computers like ENIAC and UNIVAC were called mainframes. The desktop or laptop computer that you use today is much more powerful than those big machines.
In the 1940s, scientists at Bell Telephone Laboratories invented a tiny electric switch called the transistor. In the 1960s, scientists and engineers invented integrated circuits or computer chips. Computer chips cram millions of transistors into a space the size of your little fingernail. Computer chips allowed computers to be smaller.
Personal computers (PCs) were invented in the 1970s. Most PCs are meant to be used by only one person at a time. They are small enough to fit on a desk. The Altair 8800 was the first PC. Apple Computer made its first PC in 1977. IBM made its first PC in 1981.
Computer programs are sets of instructions that tell a computer what to do. Many people worked on early computer programs. The first programs were very hard to write and understand. They were extremely long strings of zeros and ones.
American naval officer and mathematician Grace Murray Hopper in 1952 wrote the first program that turned English computer instructions into the strings of ones and zeros that make computers work. These programs are called compilers. In 1957, she helped develop the first programming language that companies could buy and use. It was called FLOW-MATIC. Hopper was also the first to use the word bug to mean a problem with a computer. She found a moth trapped in one of the computers she worked with. She taped the moth into her notebook and wrote, “First actual case of a bug being found.”
As computers have become more powerful and widespread, operating systems have become extremely complex. Few people can use a computer without one. Scientists at AT&T developed an operating system called UNIX in 1969. UNIX and related operating systems such as Linux are popular at universities and among computer professionals. In 1975, Bill Gates and his friend Paul Allen wrote a program for the Altair 8800 and founded the Microsoft Corporation. Microsoft later developed the DOS and Windows operating systems used on many home and office PCs.
Computers keep getting smaller and more powerful. Personal computers that fit on a desktop today are more powerful than early “supercomputers” that filled entire rooms. Cell phones and watches contain tiny computers that can store information such as telephone numbers, addresses, and appointments. These devices allow you to surf the Web and play games. Many computer experts think that computers have only begun to make their mark on history.
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