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. It allowed a 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 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.
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.
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.
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.