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A computer is a device that can be instructed to carry out an arbitrary set of arithmetic or logical operations automatically. Their ability of computers to follow a sequence of operations, called a program, make computers very flexible and useful. Such computers are used as control systems for a very wide variety of industrial and consumer devices. This includes simple special purpose devices like microwave ovens and remote controls, factory devices such as industrial robots and computer assisted design, but also in general purpose devices like personal computers and mobile devices such as smartphones. The Internet is run on computers and it connects millions of other computers.
Since ancient times, simple manual devices like the abacus aided people in doing calculations. Early in the Industrial Revolution, some mechanical devices were built to automate long tedious tasks, such as guiding patterns for looms. More sophisticated electrical machines did specialized analog calculations in the early 20th century. The first digital electronic calculating machines were developed during World War II. The speed, power, and versatility of computers increased continuously and dramatically since then, to the point that artificial intelligence may become possible in the future.
Conventionally, a modern computer consists of at least one processing element, typically a central processing unit (CPU), and some form of memory. The processing element carries out arithmetic and logical operations, and a sequencing and control unit can change the order of operations in response to stored information. Peripheral devices include input devices (keyboards, mice, joystick, etc.), output devices (monitor screens, printers, etc.), and input/output devices that perform both functions (e.g., the 2000s-era touchscreen). Peripheral devices allow information to be retrieved from an external source and they enable the result of operations to be saved and retrieved.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first known use of the word ,,computer" was in 1613 in a book called The Yong Mans Gleanings by English writer Richard Braithwait: "I haue [sic] read the truest computer of Times, and the best Arithmetician that euer [sic] breathed, and he reduceth thy dayes into a short number." This usage of the term referred to a person who carried out calculations or computations. The word continued with the same meaning until the middle of the 20th century. From the end of the 19th century the word began to take on its more familiar meaning, a machine that carries out computations.
The Online Etymology Dictionary gives the first attested use of ,,computer" in the "1640s, [meaning] ,,one who calculates,"; this is an "...agent noun from compute (v.)". The Online Etymology Dictionary states that the use of the term to mean ,,calculating machine" (of any type) is from 1897." The Online Etymology Dictionary indicates that the "modern use" of the term, to mean ,,programmable digital electronic computer" dates from "...1945 under this name; [in a] theoretical [sense] from 1937, as Turing machine".
Devices have been used to aid computation for thousands of years, mostly using one-to-one correspondence with fingers. The earliest counting device was probably a form of tally stick. Later record keeping aids throughout the Fertile Crescent included calculi (clay spheres, cones, etc.) which represented counts of items, probably livestock or grains, sealed in hollow unbaked clay containers. The use of counting rods is one example.
The abacus was initially used for arithmetic tasks. The Roman abacus was developed from devices used in Babylonia as early as 2400 BC. Since then, many other forms of reckoning boards or tables have been invented. In a medieval European counting house, a checkered cloth would be placed on a table, and markers moved around on it according to certain rules, as an aid to calculating sums of money.
The Antikythera mechanism is believed to be the earliest mechanical analog ,,computer", according to Derek J. de Solla Price. It was designed to calculate astronomical positions. It was discovered in 1901 in the Antikythera wreck off the Greek island of Antikythera, between Kythera and Crete, and has been dated to circa 100 BC. Devices of a level of complexity comparable to that of the Antikythera mechanism would not reappear until a thousand years later.
Many mechanical aids to calculation and measurement were constructed for astronomical and navigation use. The planisphere was a star chart invented by Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī in the early 11th century. The astrolabe was invented in the Hellenistic world in either the 1st or 2nd centuries BC and is often attributed to Hipparchus. A combination of the planisphere and dioptra, the astrolabe was effectively an analog computer capable of working out several different kinds of problems in spherical astronomy. An astrolabe incorporating a mechanical calendar computer and gear-wheels was invented by Abi Bakr of Isfahan, Persia in 1235. Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī invented the first mechanical geared lunisolar calendar astrolabe, an early fixed-wired knowledge processing machine with a gear train and gear-wheels, circa 1000 AD.
The sector, a calculating instrument used for solving problems in proportion, trigonometry, multiplication and division, and for various functions, such as squares and cube roots, was developed in the late 16th century and found application in gunnery, surveying and navigation.
The planimeter was a manual instrument to calculate the area of a closed figure by tracing over it with a mechanical linkage. A slide rule
The slide rule was invented around 1620–1630, shortly after the publication of the concept of the logarithm. It is a hand-operated analog computer for doing multiplication and division. As slide rule development progressed, added scales provided reciprocals, squares and square roots, cubes and cube roots, as well as transcendental functions such as logarithms and exponentials, circular and hyperbolic trigonometry and other functions. Aviation is one of the few fields where slide rules are still in widespread use, particularly for solving time–distance problems in light aircraft. To save space and for ease of reading, these are typically circular devices rather than the classic linear slide rule shape. A popular example is the E6B.
In the 1770s Pierre Jaquet-Droz, a Swiss watchmaker, built a mechanical doll (automata) that could write holding a quill pen. By switching the number and order of its internal wheels different letters, and hence different messages, could be produced. In effect, it could be mechanically ,,programmed" to read instructions. Along with two other complex machines, the doll is at the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and still operates.
The tide-predicting machine invented by Sir William Thomson in 1872 was of great utility to navigation in shallow waters. It used a system of pulleys and wires to automatically calculate predicted tide levels for a set period at a particular location.
The differential analyser, a mechanical analog computer designed to solve differential equations by integration, used wheel-and-disc mechanisms to perform the integration. In 1876 Lord Kelvin had already discussed the possible construction of such calculators, but he had been stymied by the limited output torque of the ball-and-disk integrators. In a differential analyzer, the output of one integrator drove the input of the next integrator, or a graphing output. The torque amplifier was the advance that allowed these machines to work. Starting in the 1920s, Vannevar Bush and others developed mechanical differential analyzers.
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