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The Evolution of Computers: Key Resources (July 2013): Home

By Kyle D. Winward


This bibliographic essay originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of Choice (volume 50 | number 11).


The history of computer development is a chronicle of the work of brilliant scientists and of dramatic leaps in innovation that have had a profound impact on the way we work and live.  Originally the exclusive domain of businesses, government, and the military, computer technology now reaches into all spheres of our daily activities, from communication, education, and politics, to commerce, recreation, and even dating.

Early mechanical and electrical computers were used to aid with calculation and other repeatable tasks.  As computers became more advanced and programmable, they became of prime importance in military operations, intelligence gathering, civic government tasks such as census data tracking, and also flight and space exploration.  The Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) led to initiatives such as e-mail, and eventually the World Wide Web.  Miniaturization of circuitry enabled the development of personal computers and mobile devices.  Increasingly, local file storage on hard drives or portable devices has given way to “cloud” based storage, and traditional websites to “crowd-sourced” platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and other social network applications.

This essay focuses on works covering milestones in computer development as well as the individuals and organizations responsible for these amazing achievements, with an emphasis on American and British innovations.  In an essay of this length, it is impossible to comprehensively treat all relevant developments, machines, and individuals.  However, this essay attempts to highlight key print and online resources of value to undergraduate libraries, especially those supporting history of science and technology collections and curricula.

In the lingo of popular culture there are plenty of computer “firsts,” e.g., the first electronic computer, the first stored program computer, the first general purpose digital computer.  In the majority of cases, however, there are multiple machines that may be considered, which Edwin D. Reilly adroitly includes in various entries in his excellent Milestones in Computer Science and Information Technology.  Additionally, as with other technological innovations throughout history, regional favoritism often prevails.  In The First Computers: History and Architectures, Raúl Rojas and Ulf Hashagen argue that such rivalries are counterproductive; many advances in computer development were dependent on innovations in many different regions.  Rojas and Hashagen add that stored program computers were almost simultaneously developed in cross-Atlantic countries.