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About this book

This lively and fascinating text traces the key developments in computation – from 3000 B.C. to the present day – in an easy-to-follow and concise manner. Topics and features: ideal for self-study, offering many pedagogical features such as chapter-opening key topics, chapter introductions and summaries, exercises, and a glossary; presents detailed information on major figures in computing, such as Boole, Babbage, Shannon, Turing, Zuse and Von Neumann; reviews the history of software engineering and of programming languages, including syntax and semantics; discusses the progress of artificial intelligence, with extension to such key disciplines as philosophy, psychology, linguistics, neural networks and cybernetics; examines the impact on society of the introduction of the personal computer, the World Wide Web, and the development of mobile phone technology; follows the evolution of a number of major technology companies, including IBM, Microsoft and Apple.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Computing in Early Civilisations

It is difficult to think of western society today without modern technology. The last decades of the twentieth century have witnessed a proliferation of high-tech computers, mobile phones, text messaging, the Internet and the World Wide Web. Software is now pervasive, and it is an integral part of automobiles, airplanes, televisions and mobile communication. The pace of change as a result of all this new technology has been extraordinary. Today consumers may book flights over the World Wide Web as well as keep in contact with family members in any part of the world via e-mail or mobile phone. In previous generations, communication often involved writing letters that took months to reach the recipient. Communication improved with the telegrams and the telephone in the late nineteenth century. Communication today is instantaneous with text messaging, mobile phones and e-mail, and the new generation probably views the world of their parents and grandparents as being old-fashioned.

Gerard O’Regan

Chapter 2. What Is a Computer?

Computers are an integral part of modern society, and new technology has transformed the world into a global village. Communication is now conducted using text messaging, e-mail, mobile phones, video calls over the Internet using Skype and social media sites such as Facebook. The new technology makes it easier for people to keep in touch with friends and family around the world and allows business to be conducted in a global market.

Gerard O’Regan

Chapter 3. Early Computers

This chapter considers some of the early computers developed in the United States, Britain, Germany and Australia. The Second World War motivated researchers to investigate faster ways to perform calculation to solve practical problems. This led to research into the development of machines to provide faster methods of computation.

Gerard O’Regan

Chapter 4. Developments in the 1950s–1970s

This chapter considers a selection of computers developed during the 1950s–1970s. The initial driver for the design and development of more powerful computers was the perceived threat of the Soviet Union. This led to an arms race between the two superpowers, and it was clear that computing technology would play an important role in developing sophisticated weapon and defence systems. The SAGE air defence system developed for the United States and Canada was an early example of the use of computer technology for the military.

Gerard O’Regan

Chapter 5. Revolutions in the 1980s and 1990s

The 1980s and 1990s were a time of fundamental change in the computing field. The industry moved from a world dominated by mainframe computers to a brave new world dominated by networks of personal computers. The invention of the World Wide Web was a revolution in computing, and it has altered consumer and business behaviour. The speed of microprocessors improved dramatically during the period, and there were large increases in memory and storage in personal computers. This increase in processing power has transformed computers from machines dedicated to business or scientific use to sophisticated machines that may play music or videos or engage in multimedia communication.

Gerard O’Regan

Chapter 6. IBM

This chapter considers the history of International Business Machines (IBM). This company is a household name and has a long and distinguished history. It is a major corporation that has made major contributions to the computing field and in developing the computers that we are familiar with today. Its origins go back to the processing of the 1880 population census of the United States.

Gerard O’Regan

Chapter 7. Technology Companies

This chapter considers a selection of technology companies that have made important contributions to the computing field. It is not possible due to space constraints to consider all companies that merit inclusion.

Gerard O’Regan

Chapter 8. The Internet Revolution

The vision of the Internet and World Wide Web goes back to an article by Vannevar Bush in the 1940s. Bush was an American scientist who had done work on submarine detection for the US Navy. He designed and developed the differential analyser which was a mechanical computer whose function was to evaluate and solve first-order differential equations. It was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and developed by Bush and others at MIT in the early 1930s. Bush supervised Claude Shannon at MIT, and Shannon’s initial work was to improve the differential analyser.

Gerard O’Regan

Chapter 9. History of Programming Languages

Hardware is physical and may be seen and touched, whereas software is intangible and is an intellectual undertaking by a team of programmers. Software is written in a particular programming language, and hundreds of languages have been developed. Programming languages have evolved over time with the earliest languages using machine code to program the computer. The next development was the use of assembly languages to represent machine language instructions. These were then translated into machine code by an assembler. The next step was the development of high-level programming languages such as FORTRAN and COBOL. These were easier to use than assembly languages and machine code and helped to improve quality and productivity.

Gerard O’Regan

Chapter 10. History of Software Engineering

The NATO Science Committee organised two famous conferences on software engineering in the late 1960s. The first conference was held in Garmisch, Germany, in 1968, and this was followed by a second conference in Rome in 1969. The Garmisch conference was attended by over 50 people from 11 countries.

Gerard O’Regan

Chapter 11. People in Computing

The objective of this chapter is to give a flavour of some of the people who have made important contributions to the computing field. A small selection is considered as it is not feasible, due to space constraints, to consider all those who merit inclusion.

Gerard O’Regan

Chapter 12. Foundations (Boole and Babbage)

This chapter considers the work of George Boole and Charles Babbage who are considered grandfathers of computing. George Boole was a nineteenth-century English mathematician who made contributions to logic, probability theory and the differential and integral calculus. His calculus of logic (Boolean logic) acts as the foundation of all modern digital computers.

Gerard O’Regan

Chapter 13. Claude Shannon

Claude Shannon was an American mathematician and engineer who made fundamental contributions to computing. He was born in Michigan in 1916, and his primary degree was in mathematics and electrical engineering at the University of Michigan in 1936. He was awarded a PhD in mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1940.

Gerard O’Regan

Chapter 14. Alan Turing

Alan Turing was a British mathematician and computer scientist who made fundamental contributions to mathematics and computer science. He made important contributions to computability with his theoretical Turing machine, cryptology and breaking the German Enigma naval codes at Bletchley Park code-breaking centre during the Second World War; he contributed to the development of software for the Manchester Mark 1 at Manchester University; and he contributed to the emerging field of artificial intelligence.

Gerard O’Regan

Chapter 15. Artificial Intelligence

The long-term goal of artificial intelligence is to create a thinking machine that is intelligent, has consciousness, has the ability to learn, has free will and is ethical. The field involves several disciplines such as philosophy, psychology, linguistics, machine vision, cognitive science, mathematics, logic and ethics. Artificial intelligence is a young field, and the term was coined by John McCarthy and others in 1956. Alan Turing had earlier devised the Turing test as a way to test the intelligent behaviour of a machine. There are deep philosophical problems in artificial intelligence, and some researchers believe that its goals are impossible or incoherent. These views are shared by Hubert Dreyfus and John Searle. Even if artificial intelligence is possible, there are moral issues to consider such as the exploitation of artificial machines by humans and whether it is ethical to do this. Weizenbaum has argued that artificial intelligence is unethical.

Gerard O’Regan
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