Following the path of digitalization in Slovenia and Europe: Modern computers are writing a new history for humanity

The history of computers in our review so far (in the first two articles of the history of the origin of computers) has taken us from its inception almost five thousand years ago to first-generation mechanical and electronic computers. In today’s review, however, we string together the important inventions and advanced technology that brought us to the very heart of the contemporary computer of the modern digital age. All forms of computers described in this history review of their origin were so different in appearance that it would be challenging to draw visible parallels between them by external observation alone.

However, their purpose was the same; all these computers have been refined with the same goal: to serve humanity in its progress, help it solve complex mathematical problems and puzzles, and thus contribute to forming a more advanced society. Today’s modern computers have added an extra dimension to this: global networking, information sharing, socialising, and personal entertainment.

A decisive turning point in computer science and the emergence of the modern computer was enabled by the unimaginable development of electronics and electrical engineering. Thus, with the invention of tubes and electronic circuits, first-generation computers were created, and advances in electronic technology launched second-generation computers into the computer orbit. What invention do we have to thank for this new leap towards modern personal computers?

Different types of transistors. Photos: Wikipedia.
Different types of transistors. Photos: Wikipedia.

The invention of the transistor paves the way for second-generation computers.

Vacuum tubes brought a new wind into the computer story, but computers needed a lot of them to operate. These vacuum tubes generated large amounts of heat that warmed the computers up as if they were ovens. There was an urgent need to invent something more useful. This is where the semiconductor electronic element comes into the computer scene – transistors far exceed the vacuum tubes: they are much smaller, only a few millimetres in size, consume much less energy and, therefore, produce very little heat. They are more reliable and have a longer service life. After 1955, transistors began to be built into computers, and such computers are now often called second-generation computers.

The transistor concept dates back several decades to 1925 when Julius Edgar Lilienfeld introduced it. The first working transistor was assembled by John Barden, Walther Brattain, and William Bradford Shockley at Bell Labs in New Jersey a year later. But here, the path of the transistor does not end; it took until 1947 for it to become reliable enough that it was helpful for installation into computers.

In 1954, IBM introduced its first commercial computers, which had built-in transistors.

MOSFET transistors triggered a new computer revolution.

At Bell Labs, they wanted to improve the excellent properties of transistors. They succeeded in 1959 when Mohamed Atalla and Dawon Kahng invented the Metal Oxide Semiconductor Field Effect Transistor or MOSFET. This was the first transistor to be made on a genuinely miniature scale that could be mass-produced for a wide range of use. Its features were: very low power consumption, low voltage, and low current operation, which made it significantly more energy-efficient and easier to integrate into a silicon wafer (why this feature is crucial will be explained below).

MOSFET. Photo: Brews ohare.
MOSFET. Photo: Brews ohare.

With MOSFET transistors, the door to one of the most important discoveries in computer technology was wide open, and this discovery led to third-generation computers.

Third-generation computers opens new doors – the “culprit” is the integrated circuit.

What exactly is an integrated circuit, and what does it mean for computer development? Without thinking twice, an integrated circuit could be described as many miniature transistors as possible on a silicon wafer (with a bunch of output wires) – also called a chip. Jack Kilby discovered the integrated circuit in 1958 (he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2000), and soon after, Robert Noyce perfected it.

The first computer based on silicon integrated circuits led astronauts to the moon. It was built specifically for the Apollo program.

The invention of the integrated circuit fundamentally shook and changed computers: they became faster, smaller, more powerful, and cheaper. Unlike previous computers, these third-generation computers already had a keyboard and a screen. And we all know which way this is going, right?

Chips or integrated circuits were a fundamental step in the 1970s, from which we climbed faster and faster towards smaller and more mobile computers, and thus travelled deeper and deeper into the digital society in which our lives have changed significantly; our business lives as well as personal. And how little time we had to prepare for it!

Microprocessor. Photo: Pctown.
Microprocessor. Photo: Pctown.

Modern computers have flooded the world – with microprocessors at their heart.

Technology, of course, was not satisfied with what had been achieved, development was rushing forward, and with the new improvement of integrated circuits, it sealed our destiny and turned a new page in human history. Microprocessors have happened – for the first time in history, experts have managed to install an enormous number of transistors, even millions, on a single integrated circuit, on a single chip.

With the microprocessor, all logical and mathematical operations, memory, programme, programme codes, and communication channels, which were previously all on several processors in the computer, and were interconnected – ended up on one tiny chip. In 1971, the first microprocessor available for mass consumption came to the market – the Intel 4004 chipset. In addition to powerful computers for business use and supercomputers, the mass production of personal computers for personal use began. Apple and IBM personal computers entered the market.

Apple 1 computer, developed by Steve Wozniak, Steven Jobs and Ron Wayne. Source: Getty, Science & Society Picture Library.
Apple 1 computer, developed by Steve Wozniak, Steven Jobs and Ron Wayne. Source: Getty, Science & Society Picture Library.

The invention of the microprocessor brought fourth-generation computers to the scene. These computers became so small that we could put them on a table and that we still use in countless improved versions (laptops, smartphones, tablets) today. Not only have personal computers changed technically, but they also found an extraordinary place in the life of modern humanity with the invention of the internet in the 1990s.

They have become our window into the world, our connection with fellow human beings, our personal allies, available always – night and day, our personal advisers and in some way even our friends. Without digitalisation, we can no longer imagine everyday life, as it has brought us a lot – it has given us the whole world on a plate. It will be an essential tool for the new generations, through which they will anchor new knowledge and show humanity new paths.

They say that the fifth generation of computers is already on the horizon, waiting to be developed, with advanced computer microelectronic technologies that will enable parallel data processing and much faster computing, and with nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, quantum computing. So, the story of computer history is by no means over…

Author: Lučka Tancer

Keywords: history, computer, transistor, MOSFET, integrated circuit, microprocessor


This article is part of a joint project of the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies and the Anton Korošec Institute (INAK), Following the path of digitalisation in Slovenia and Europe. This project receives funding from the European Parliament. 
The information and views set out in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union institutions/Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies/ Anton Korošec Institute. Organisations mentioned above assume no responsibility for facts or opinions expressed in this article or any subsequent use of the information contained therein.