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Information Technology Timeline - the First 400 Years

  • 1614 – John Napier invents logarithms.
  • 1623-74 – Wilhelm Schickard, Blaise Pascal and Gottfried Leibniz produce mechanical calculating machines.
  • 1625 – William Oughtred invents the slide rule.
  • 1801 – Joseph-Marie Jacquard develops an automatic weaving loom controlled by punched cards.
  • 1820 – Charles Thomas de Colmar launches the 'Arithmometer', the world's first mass-produced calculator.
  • 1822 – Charles Babbage builds the first model of a 'Difference Engine' for the British Admiralty.
  • 1830's – Babbage designs an 'Analytical Engine', a general purpose computing device intended to be programmable using Jacquard punched tape.
  • 1890 – Herman Hollerith develops the punched card ruler to count and collate US census data.
  • 1936 – Alan Turing publishes his mathematical theory of computing.
  • 1938 – Konrad Zuse constructs the first binary calculator, using Boolean algebra.
  • 1943 – 'Colossus' electronic code-breaking computer developed at Bletchley Park. Harvard University Mk I or Automatic Sequence-Controlled Calculator, partly financed by IBM, becomes the first program-controlled calculator.
  • 1945 – The 'Electronic Numerator, Integrator, Analyser and Computer (ENIAC) completed at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • 1948 – Manchester University Mk I becomes the first stored-program computer. Transistor invented at Bell Telephone Laboratories (USA) by John Bardeen and Walter Brittain, building on the work of William Shockley.
  • 1951 – Ferranti Mk I becomes the first commercially-produced computer. 'Whirlwind', the first real-time computer, is built for the US air-defence system.
  • 1952 – Team led by John von Neumann at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, completes the Electronic Discrete Variable Computer (EDVAC).
  • 1953 – Magnetic core memory developed.
  • 1957 – IBM team led by John Backus, develops FORTRAN, the first high-level programming language, as a tool for solving engineering and science problems.
  • 1958 – The first integrated circuit is produced.
  • 1963 – Digital Equipment (DEC) build the PDP-8, the first mini-computer. Bell Punch Company introduces the first electronic calculator.
  • 1964 – The IBM System/360 becomes the first compatible family of computers.
  • 1965 – The Control Data CD6600 becomes the first supercomputer.
  • 1970 – The Intel 4004 becomes the first commercially-available microprocessor.
  • 1972 – Ritchie of Bell Laboratories in New Jersey develops the language C.
  • 1973 – Part of the UNIX operating system is implemented in C.
  • 1974 – CLIP-4 becomes the first computer with a parallel architecture, allowing more than one computation to be executed at the same time.
  • 1975 – Altair 8800 becomes the first microcomputer.
  • 1977 – Wozniak and Jobs founded Apple Computer.
  • 1978 – Bricklin and Frankston develop the first electronic spreadsheet, called VisiCalc, for the Apple computer.
  • 1980 – Sinclair ZX80 becomes the UK's first mass-market home computer.
  • 1981 – Xerox Start becomes the first Windows, Icons, Menus and Pointing (WIMP) system.
  • 1984 – Apple MacIntosh becomes the first widely available computer with a "user-friendly" graphical interface with WIMP features.
  • 1985 – The Inmos T414 Transputer becomes the first 'off the shelf' Reduced Instruction Set Computer (RISC) microprocessor for building parallel computers.
  • 1988 – Internet Relay Chat, a protocol for real time Internet text messaging, is developed, enabling the development of Internet chatrooms.
  • 1989 – Microsoft Corporation introduces Windows for IBM compatible computers.
  • 1991 – Berners-Lee completes the basic tools required for the World Wide Web
  • 1992 – IBM claim the IBM Simon as the first 'smartphone'.
  • c. 1995 onwards – Various Instant Messaging (IM) services, eg PowWow, ICQ, MSN Messenger and AOL Instant Messenger, become available.
  • 2000 – RSA Security Inc. release the RSA encryption algorithm into the public domain kick-starting a number of developments in computer security.
  • 2004 – Launch of thefacebook Social Networking site (later Facebook). Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov discover graphene.
  • 2005 – A pioneering low-cost laptop for developing countries called OLPC is announced by MIT computing pioneer Nicholas Negroponte.
  • 2007 – launches its Kindle electronic book (e-book) reader. Apple introduces a touchscreen cellphone called the iPhone. 
  • 2010 – Apple releases its touchscreen tablet computer, the iPad. 
  • 2015 – Microsoft announces Windows 10.


Mechanical Computers

Although Charles Babbage had outlined the concept of a programmable computer in 1822, it was 1943 before 'Colossus' became the first working example. Nevertheless, several programmable mechanical devices had been built before this.

The Museum collection contains an RAF Mark XIV bomb sight computer, introduced in 1942 and fitted to a Lancaster bomber. It allowed the bomber to follow a curving flight path during the run-in to its target without losing aim, by recalculating the relative positions of aircraft and target.

Although invented in Britain by Patrick Blackett, production moved to the United States. The Museum’s example was manufactured in the US by A.C. Spark Plug, a division of General Motors.

Early Electronic Computers

Early electronic computers such as the 'LEO' (1951) used thermionic valves as switches to process information. They were large, heavy and consumed a lot of power. LEO was the world's first business computer and was commissioned by the bakery firm of J. Lyons & Co. Ltd, for most of their clerical operations, costings, invoicing, ordering, stock control and payroll of 20,000 employees. It first ran in February, 1951 and was switched off in January, 1965, after nearly 14 years of continuous operation.

Early computers were effectively sophisticated calculators. As microelectronics developed, it became clear that microprocessors could be used to control processes in applications ranging from domestic appliances to space travel.

The Museum’s Rockwell AIM 65 microcomputer development kit was used to test and develop software for new products that used in-built micro-processors. Several microprocessor suppliers produced kit of this kind to encourage designers to fit more electronics into their products. They were also used within the electronics industry to retrain engineers who were more familiar with discrete integrated circuit design techniques.

Enter the Home Computer

In the late 1970s, desktop microcomputers began to enter the market. The Commodore PET of 1977 was suitable for home or small business use. However, it fell to the Sinclair ZX80 and ZX81 to bring home computing to the mass market. These had only 1k of Random Access Memory (RAM), but could be programmed using the BASIC computer language.

The ZX81 was expandable to 16k. Sinclair quickly followed up with the 16k and 48k Spectrum computers, for which a wide range of games was available.

By the early 1980s, high street stores such as WH Smith were selling home computers as well as books about BASIC programming and a wide range of home computing magazines. The best sellers at this time were the Commodore 64, Sinclair Spectrum and BBC Micro.

The BBC Micro was built to support a series of television programmes and associated literature designed to educate the British public about computing. The initial version had 68k RAM but later versions reached 128k. It was highly successful, despite being expensive relative to models like the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64, for which larger ranges of games were available.

The business microcomputer market was initially dominated by the IBM PC (1981) and the Apple Macintosh (1984). ‘IBM Compatible’ became an industry standard, but the Apple Macintosh had greater graphics capabilities and was usually the first choice for the desktop publishing, graphic design and printing industries.

The World Wide Web

In 1962, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the U.S. Department of Defense, started to lay the groundwork for ARPANET, from which the Internet eventually sprang. Various developments initiated in the 1970s and 80s allowed the Internet to become a global data communications system of inter-connected computer networks.

This mattered little to most business and home users until the advent of the World Wide Web in 1991. The World Wide Web is not the same as the Internet. The Internet comprises hardware and software infrastructure that allows computers to be connected.

The World Wide Web consists of documents and other resources inter-connected by hyperlinks and Uniform Resource Locators (URLs or Internet addresses). With the introduction of the Mosaic web browser in 1993, the World Wide Web became easily searchable. More advanced web browsers have followed.

Web information is housed on servers in many different locations, linked by the Internet. The Museum collection contains an Enterprise 6500 server produced by Sun Microsystems in 1999. This is a 30 processor server with exchangeable modular components, designed to facilitate ease of upgrade.

Latest Developments

As processing speeds increased and graphics capabilities improved, the World Wide Web was used to convey ever more complex images. This has created a need for miniature data capture devices such as webcams. With the development of WAP (Wireless Application Protocols) enabling mobile phones and other hand-held devices to access the World Wide Web, the transmission of radio and television programmes online and the ready availability of online music, the traditional boundaries between telephone, radio/TV receiver and entertainment media have become irrelevant.

The effects of miniaturisation are best seen in the world’s smallest TV, which forms part of the Museum collection. Produced by Edinburgh-based manufacturers MicroEmissive Displays, it is intended as a viewfinder for digital cameras, camcorders and as the display in head-mounted,'virtual reality' goggles. The CMOS driver chip is coated with a special polymer that emits light (i.e. glows) when electrical power is applied, giving a very bright, colour display with a power consumption of about 50mW.

Scotland is home to some of the world’s most innovative technologies with regards to video streaming, data compression and Internet Protocol video/CCTV. Research is actively encouraged into electronics and many of Scotland’s top universities are heralding new projects.

Mark XIV mechanical bomb-sight computer (1942)
Mark XIV mechanical bomb-sight computer (1942)
One of 64 LEO computer modules
One of 64 LEO computer modules
Rockwell AIM 65 (1976)
Rockwell AIM 65 (1976)
Commodore PET (1977)
Commodore PET (1977)
Left to right: Commodore PET (1977); Sinclair ZX Spectrum (1982); BBC Micro (1981)
Left to right: Commodore PET (1977); Sinclair ZX Spectrum (1982); BBC Micro (1981)
Left to right: Argus 400 (1967); Commodore PET (1977); Compaq Portable (1987)
Left to right: Argus 400 (1967); Commodore PET (1977); Compaq Portable (1987)
Temporary display of early micro-computer systems
Temporary display of early micro-computer systems
Temporary display of early computer systems
Temporary display of early computer systems
Display at IET headquarters, Glasgow.
Display at IET headquarters, Glasgow.