The National on May 5, 2000
Information Technology ... the way ahead
Welcome to the first issue of the
Tok IT Page.
IT, which is short for Information Technology, has been with us for many years
in various guises.
IT is simply the modern way or method of dealing
with information, whether it is to store, transfer, share, create or manipulate.
Information today comes in three main formats ... text, graphics and sound.
When we talk about IT, we also touch upon the
tool that made it all possible ... the computer. The first computer may be said to be the abacus
... a rack with sliding beads and used to perform calculations fast (faster, in
fact, than someone using a modern electronic calculator).
And that was some
5,000 years ago in Asia. We will talk about the history of computers in
issue of the Tok IT Page.
For now it is sufficient to note how the
computer has made inroads in the lives of people. In Papua New Guinea, though not as saturated in
technology as many of her neighbours, you don't have to look far to find
something that has been made possible or available thanks to computers. You may
not understand computers, but you are doubtless affected by it.
Which is one good reason why we have the Tok
IT Page. We aim to inform you, the reader, about Man's
best invention. The world is moving very fast in this age of
Information Technology. So as not to be left behind, PNG must seize all
Let's start talking.
Daniel Lam, Tok IT Editor
By Daniel Lam
it everywhere. For those who have had
little exposure to this pervasive "entity", it is nothing short of
marvellous, the things it can do. The counter clerk makes a few taps on a square
board with buttons and voila! things happen. It tallies your groceries bill. It
allows us to withdraw cash after office hours.
It has been described as Man's second best (if
not the best) invention after the wheel. With this amazing "tool", for
in essence that is what it is, Man has been able to perform feats long deemed
Can't solve complex calculations? This tool can
handle it. At present, this tool can handle close to one billion of such
calculations at a time.
We are talking about the computer, of course. Surprisingly, it can be difficult to describe
what exactly a computer is.
One particular textbook defines a computer as an
electronic device, operating under the instructions stored in its own memory
unit, that can accept data (input), process data arithmetically and logically,
produce results (output) from the processing, and store the results for future
Most computers also include the capability to
communicate by sending and receiving data to other computers and to connect to
the Internet (more on this in a later issue of the Tok IT Page). Often
the term computer or computer system is used to describe a collection of devices
that can function together to process data.
At Tok IT, we see the computer as an
electronic tool that helps users make decisions faster and better.
A computer is made up two parts: hardware and
software. Hardware is physical, and software is not.
There are many components that make up the
hardware. Although different computers can have a variety of different
components, they all come under three categories:
Input devices allow us to interact with the
computer and enter (issue) commands into it. For most people who use personal
computers, the two main important input devices are a keyboard and a mouse.
The keyboard generally has buttons (known as
keys) corresponding to alphabets and numbers, allowing us to type in text and
numbers, as well as other keys with specific functions.
A mouse is a hand-held device that allows us to
move a pointer on the screen. When the pointer is placed at the proper position
on the screen (i.e. pointing to a button, a slider, or another image on the
screen), we click on one of the mouse buttons to select that item and thereby
issue commands to the computer.
Sometimes computers have other input devices such
as card readers, scanners, and voice recognition devices. Still others may have
gamepads and joysticks.
All of these provide some way for a computer user
to provide commands to the computer.
This term refers to a box that contains the
electronic circuits that carry out the data processing. The electronic circuits
of a computer are connected to a main circuit board (often called a motherboard
The motherboard contains the Central Processing
Unit (CPU) that executes instructions and controls the order in which the
computer carries out its operations, and an arithmetic/logic unit (ALU) that
performs mathematical operations and evaluates logical expressions.
The CPU is often called the processor. The
systems unit also contains memory chips known as random access memory (RAM)
chips, which temporarily store data and operating instructions when the computer
is turned on.
This storage is "temporary" because is
it is lost when the computer is turned off. The system unit also contains a wide
variety of electrical components that connect the input and output devices to
the other units of the computer.
Just as you need input devices to provide
commands and data to a computer, we need output devices to receive information
back from it. Examples of output devices include the monitor and a printer.
Today many computers also come with speakers that provide sound output.
Computers are also capable of storing large
amounts of data on a more permanent basis than that in RAM chips. They are
linked to the motherboard and are called secondary storage units. The
information stored in these units is not erased when the computer is switched
Examples of these units include floppy disk
drives, hard disk drives and the CD-ROM drives.
Today these devices are typically housed inside
the same case as the systems unit, but are really separate components. The
processor takes a longer time to access information stored on these devices
compared to that stored in RAM, but at least the information is permanent.
There are other components, which make up the
Communication devices are one example. These
devices include modems (that allow us to connect our computer to other computers
via a telephone line), and network interface cards (that allows us to connect
our computer to other computers via network cabling). A network basically refers
to a group of computers that are connected together.
Having all the hardware is useless without the
software. Software is the link between the user and the hardware. With the
appropriate software the user can perform amazing feats with the computer.
Without software, the computer becomes little more than a very expensive
For example, this article was written using
software. Sometimes software is called a computer program.
What computers do
Any type of computer can be thought of as capable
of performing four basic types of operations: input, processing, output and
storage. First, data (numbers, words, pictures, sounds, symbols etc) is input
into a computer.
Then the computer processes (manipulates, sorts,
organises, performs arithmetic operations etc) the data. Finally, the computer
outputs the results of its processing.
Often, the computer also stores both the data and
the results of the processing (which are often referred to as information).
Computers are categorised in many ways, primarily
based upon their size and complexity. Among the common textbook categories of computers
are personal computers, servers, minicomputers, mainframes, and supercomputers.
Personal computers (PC), which were initially
called microcomputers, include the subtypes of palmtop, notebook, desktop,
workstation, and others. Basically, a personal computer is a small unit designed
to be used by one person at a time.
Today the term "PC" is synonymous with
IBM computers or compatibles (meaning similar in hardware and software). Tok
IT will delve into this in a later issue. In any case, a personal computer
is generally any computer designed for one user.
A server generally refers to a computer that is
designed to support a network of computers. Typically, a server works as the
central computer as a part of one or more networks. It may have more than one processor, includes
high-speed communication facilities, and possesses large memory and storage
capabilities. Usually a number of personal computers will interact with the
server through a network.
A minicomputer is a much bigger computer to which
multiple users can be connected at the same time via terminals. Their commands
usually go right to the minicomputer, rather than to a unit sitting in front of
them. Users typically share the same computer through a
timesharing arrangement that gives each user a few milliseconds of time before
proceeding to the next user. The time sharing operation is so fast that each
user has the illusion of being the sole user.
Main frame computers are vastly larger system
that can handle hundreds of users simultaneously.
Super computers are the most powerful and
expensive computers. They can process billions of operations per second, and are
used in engineering design, military and space programs, and weather
in The National on May 12, 2000
From beads to silicon
Nothing reflects modern living better than the
computer. They are everywhere. The first computers may have been meant for
performing complex calculations, but now they are used for leisure and
communication as well.
It may be an exercise in futility to figure out
just how much the computer has changed and influenced our lives, but it wouldn't
hurt to know just how this marvel of mankind's genius came to be.
Last week we introduced the computer. To fully
understand and appreciate it, however, we must understand its evolution. Maybe
then we can see where all this technology is heading.
By Daniel Lam
of years ago (probably around 1,000 BC)
in Asia mankind came up with a tool to help him perform simple mathematics. It
was simple ... a number of sliding beads arranged on a rack and the system for
calculations was equally so. It was probably used by traders to keep track of
their business. It was the abacus.
It was many, many centuries later that the next
significant advance in computing technology took place.
In 1642, Blaise Pascal, the 18-year-old son of a
French tax collector (somewhat like a representative of PNG's Internal Revenue
Commission), invented what he called a "numerical wheel calculator".
It was also called a Pascaline.
It was meant as an aid to his father's work. It
was limited to additions - no subtractions, multiplications or divisions.
This brass rectangular box used eight dials to
add up sums up to eight figures long (from 1 to 99,999,999).
Young Pascal's invention used a base of 10 to
accomplish this. For example, if the "ones" dial moves 10 notches or
one complete "revolution", it moves the next dial (the
"tens") one place. When the "tens" dial moves one
"revolution", the dial representing the "hundreds" moved one
notch, and so on.
A little over half a century later, in 1694,
German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz improved on
the Pascaline, allowing the machine to multiply as well.
Mr Von Leibniz's mechanical multiplier, like the Pascaline, worked by a system of gears and dials.
It wasn't until nearly two centuries later, in
1820, that mechanical calculators gained widespread use.
Charles Xavier Thomas de Colmar, a Frenchman,
invented a machine that could perform the four basic mathematical functions.
Mr De Colmar's mechanical calculator, called the
"arithometer", presented a more practical approach to computing
because it could add, subtract, multiply and divide.
With its enhanced versatility, the arithometer
was widely used up until World War I.
Even so, the computer as we know it today had its
beginnings only in the 19th century.
Mathematics professor Charles Babbage, who was
examining calculations for the Royal Astronomical Society, was absolutely
frustrated with the number of errors he had found.
He was said to have declared: "I wish to God
these calculations had been performed by steam!"
By 1812, Prof Babbage found a "natural"
harmony between machines and mathematics - he realised that machines perform
tasks over and over again without mistake while mathematics often required
repetition of steps.
The solution, therefore, lay in applying the
machine to meet the needs of mathematics.
His first attempt at solving this problem took
place in 1822 when he proposed a machine, called a Difference Engine, to perform
Looking and somewhat powered like a locomotive (a
train powered by steam), the machine would have a stored program and could
perform calculations and print the results automatically.
Ten years later, Prof Babbage began work on the
first general-purpose computer, called the Analytical Engine.
The engine however existed mainly on paper and
the minds of those who understood it.
It seems primitive by today's standards, but it
outlined the basic elements of a computer and was a breakthrough concept.
Incorporating over 50,000 components, the basic
design of the Analytical Engine included input devices in the form of perforated
cards (like punch cards) containing operating instructions and a
"store" for up to 1,000 numbers that are up to 50 decimal digits long.
It is worth noting that Prof Babbage borrowed the
idea of the punch cards from the Jacquard loom. The loom, produced in 1820, was
named after its inventor, Joseph-Marie Jacquard. Mr Jacquard used punched boards
to control the patterns to be woven.
In 1889 American inventor Herman Hollerith
applied the Jacquard loom concept to computing.
His first task was to find a faster, more
efficient and accurate way to compute the US census. The previous census in 1880
took seven years to count. With a expanding population, the census bureau feared
it would take 10 years for its next census.
Mr Hollerith used cards to store data
information, which he fed into a machine that compiled the results mechanically.
Instead of 10 years, census takers managed to
compile their results in six weeks with Mr Hollerith's machine.
Then he brought his punch card reader into the
business world, founding the Tabulating Machine Company in 1896. In 1924 after a series of mergers, the Tabulating
Machine Company became International Business Machines (IBM).
In the ensuing years, several engineers made
other significant advances.
Vannevar Bush developed a calculator for solving
differential equations in 1931. The machine could solve complex differential
equations that had long left scientists and mathematicians baffled.
The machine was cumbersome because hundreds of
gears and shafts were required to represent numbers and their various
relationships to each other.
To eliminate this bulkiness, John V. Atanasoff, a
professor at Iowa State College (now called Iowa State University) and his
graduate student, Clifford Berry, envisioned an all-electronic computer that
applied Boolean algebra to computer circuitry.
By extending this concept to electronic circuits
in the form of on or off, Prof Atanasoff and Mr Berry had developed the first
all-electronic computer by 1940.
Unfortunately, their project lost its funding and
their work was overshadowed by similar developments from other scientists.
in The National on May 12, 2000
Five generations of computers
By Daniel Lam
computer had its beginnings in the humble
abacus. And Blaise Pascal's ingenuity allowed future inventors and scientists to
come up with something that has changed the way people live, work and have fun.
However, computers really started taking shape
during World War II. Without going into detail about the war of global
proportions, it is sufficient to note it was the time when the saying
"Necessity is the mother of invention" really held true.
In the race to outdo each other, the Allied and
Axis forces came up with devices that fast-tracked the evolution of computers.
The evolution of computers can be divided into
First Generation (1945-1959)
With the onset of World War II, governments
sought to develop computers to exploit their potential strategic importance. This increased funding for computer development
projects hastened technical progress.
By 1941 German engineer Konrad Zuse had developed
a computer, known as the Z3, to design airplanes and missiles. The Allied
forces, however, made greater strides in developing powerful computers.
In 1943, the British completed a secret
code-breaking computer called the Colossus to decode German messages.
American efforts produced a broader achievement.
One of them was the Electronic Numerical
Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), produced by a partnership between the US
government and the University of Pennsylvania.
Consisting of some 18,000 vacuum tubes, 70,000
resistors and five million soldered joints, the computer was such a massive
piece of machinery that it consumed 160kW of electrical power, enough energy to
dim the lights in an entire section of, say, the National Capital District.
Developed by John Presper Eckert and John W. Mauchly, ENIAC, unlike the Colossus, was a general-purpose computer that
computed at speeds 1,000 times faster.
In the mid-1940's John von Neumann joined the
University of Pennsylvania team, initiating concepts in computer design that
remained central to computer engineering for the next 40 years.
Mr Von Neumann designed the Electronic Discrete
Variable Automatic Computer (EDVAC) in 1945 with a memory to hold both a stored
program as well as data.
This "stored memory" technique as well
as the "conditional control transfer", that allowed the computer to be
stopped at any point and then resumed, allowed for greater versatility in
The key element to the Von Neumann architecture
was the central processing unit, which allowed all computer functions to be
coordinated through a single source.
In 1951, the UNIVAC I (Universal Automatic
Computer), built by Remington Rand, became one of the first commercially
available computers to take advantage of these advances.
First generation computers were characterised by
the fact that operating instructions were made-to-order for the specific task
for which the computer was to be used.
Each computer had a different binary-coded
program called a machine language that told it how to operate. This made the computer difficult to program and
limited its versatility and speed. Other features of first generation computers
were the use of vacuum tubes (responsible for their breathtaking size) and
magnetic drums for data storage.
Generation II (1956-1963)
By 1948, the invention of the transistor greatly
changed the computer's development. The transistor replaced the large vacuum
tube in televisions, radios and computers. As a result, the size of electronic
machinery has been shrinking ever since.
The transistor was at work in the computer by
1956. Transistors led to second generation computers that were smaller, faster,
more reliable and more energy-efficient than their predecessors.
The first large-scale machines to take advantage
of this transistor technology were early supercomputers, Stretch by IBM and LARC
These computers, both developed for atomic energy
laboratories, were capable of handling an enormous amount of data, a capability
much in demand by atomic scientists.
The machines were very expensive, however, and
tended to be too powerful for the business sector's computing needs.
Second generation computers replaced machine
language with assembly language, allowing abbreviated programming codes to
replace long, difficult binary codes.
Throughout the early 1960's, there were a number
of commercially successful second generation computers used in business,
universities, and government from companies such as Burroughs, Control Data,
Honeywell, IBM, Sperry-Rand, and others.
These second generation computers also contained
all the components we associate with the modern day computer: printers, tape
storage, disk storage, memory, operating systems, and stored programs.
More sophisticated high-level languages such as
COBOL and FORTRAN came into common use during this time, and have expanded to
the current day.
These languages replaced cryptic binary machine
code with words, sentences, and mathematical formulas, making it much easier to
program a computer.
New types of careers (programmer, analyst, and
computer systems expert) and the entire software industry began with second
Generation III (1964-1971)
Though transistors were clearly a major
improvement over the vacuum tube, they still generated a great deal of heat,
which damaged the computer's sensitive internal parts.
The quartz rock was the solution. Jack Kilby, an
engineer with Texas Instruments, developed the integrated circuit (IC) in 1958.
The IC combined three electronic components onto
a small silicon disc, which was made from quartz. Scientists later managed to
fit even more on a single chip, called a semiconductor.
As a result, computers became ever smaller as
more components were squeezed onto the chip.
Generation IV (1971-Present)
After the integrated circuits, things could only
The development of large-scale integration (LSI)
allowed for hundreds of components to be fit onto one chip.
By the 1980's, very large scale integration (VLSI)
squeezed hundreds of thousands of components onto a chip.
Ultra-large scale integration (ULSI) increased
that number into the millions. The ability to fit so much onto an area about
half the size of a one toea coin helped diminish the size and price of
It also increased their power, efficiency and
The Intel 4004 chip, developed in 1971, took the
integrated circuit one step further by locating all the components of a computer
(central processing unit, memory, and input and output controls) on a minuscule
Whereas previously the integrated circuit had had
to be manufactured to fit a special purpose, now one microprocessor could be
manufactured and then programmed to meet any number of demands.
Soon everyday household items such as microwave
ovens, television sets and automobiles with electronic fuel injection
Such condensed power allowed everyday people to
harness a computer's power. They were no longer developed exclusively for large
business or government contracts.
By the mid-1970's, computer manufacturers sought
to bring computers to general consumers.
These minicomputers came complete with
user-friendly software packages that offered even non-technical users an array
of applications, most popularly word processing and spreadsheet programs.
Pioneers in this field were Commodore, Radio
Shack and Apple Computers. In the early 1980's, arcade video games such as Pac
Man and home video game systems such as the Atari 2600 ignited consumer interest
for more sophisticated, programmable home computers.
In 1981, IBM introduced its personal computer
(PC) for use in the home, office and schools.
The 1980's saw an expansion in computer use in
all three arenas as clones of the IBM PC made the personal computer even more
The number of personal computers in use more than
doubled from an estimated two million in 1981 to over five million in 1982.
Ten years later, 65 million PCs were being used.
Computers continued their trend toward a smaller size, working their way down
from desktop to laptop computers (which could fit inside a briefcase) to palmtop
(able to fit inside a breast pocket).
In direct competition with IBM's PC was Apple's
Macintosh line, introduced in 1984.
Notable for its user-friendly design, the
Macintosh offered an operating system that allowed users to move screen icons
instead of typing instructions. Users controlled the screen cursor using a
mouse, a device that mimicked the movement of one's hand on the computer screen.
This was known as a Graphical User Interface (GUI). It was several years later
before IBM PC users were treated with the same.
As computers became more widespread in the
workplace, new ways to harness their potential were developed. As smaller
computers became more powerful, they could be linked together, or networked, to
share memory space, software, information and communicate with each other.
Generation V (Present and Beyond)
Computers today have reached a level previously
not thought possible. In fact, the reason why the Year 2000 Bug (Y2k, also known
as the Millennium Bug) was a major worry was because computer programmers did
not take it into account.
Ten years ago, CPUs running at a clock speed of
33Mhz were top-of-the-line. Just last month giant computer chipmakers Intel and
AMD unveiled Pentium III and K7 Athlon CPUs clocking at speeds in excess of one
gigahertz (that's 1,000Mhz!).
Considering just how much modern-day computers
are capable of, some visionaries envision a day when computers can think.
Thinking computers, or artificial intelligence
(AI), have been the subject of many books, and of course, cinema (think The
Matrix, Star Trek or Arthur C. Clark's 2001: A Space Odyssey).
AI is still very much far off in reality. Many of
the functions of AI in the fictional world are very difficult, if not
impossible, to achieve.
Computers today can accept words, whether written
or spoken. They can also imitate human reasoning.
But human understanding, which is a very
important component, relies very much on context and meaning.
Certain modern-day computers already exhibit
fifth generation attributes. They can be used to predict, say, weather patterns.
Or help doctors diagnose their patients' ailments.
But they remain tools. And that is what computers
Sources: Mostly from the Internet, computer
magazines and the Encyclopaedia Britannica.