07/12/2019 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 07/12/2019 01:54
The first computer in the world was sold 69 years ago on 12 July 1950. It was a device designed by a German engineer Konrad Zuse and titled Z4. It took eight years (including some breaks) to produce Z4. Today computers are manufactured in tens of millions on a monthly basis and most people can afford them. Nevertheless, manufacturers face new challenges.
'It sounds ironic but back in 1949 a magazine Popular Mechanics forecast that in the future computers would weigh no more than 1.5 tonnes. Such forecast was incredible as the first computers were giant - they occupied an entire room. Modern-day devices are millions of times more powerful, yet we can put them in our handbag or backpack. So we could say that the forecast proved to be the case to some extent. Computers weigh less indeed. Approximately a thousand times less,' Simonas Tilindis, computer expert at Telia, said.
Since the first computers were enormously big and impractical, there were some more erroneous guesses about their prospects. For instance, in 1943, IBM president Thomas Watson stated: 'I think that the global market has a demand for about five computers'. He certainly had giant and extremely powerful computing machines in mind but even supercomputers are presently counted in hundreds in the world. So how has the global computer market changed from the moment the first computer was sold?
Plans Changed by World War II
Konrad Zuse started producing computer Z4 in 1942. His main goal was to create a machine intended for mass trade. Two years later, over twenty more people joined the production process, however, the lack of materials and the tragic situation in Germany, which was involved in war, reversed the direction of the events. Zuse had to urgently escape the daily bombarded Berlin and in March 1945 he and his pregnant wife and unfinished Z4 left for a small town in Bavaria. The man hid the computer in the barn. His greatest challenge now was to survive and maintain his family.
Regardless of difficulties, he managed to finish Z4, and, in 1949, a mathematician Eduard Stiefel from the Swiss Federal Technology Institute in Zurich ETH Zurich paid him a visit and evaluated the computer. After the mathematician formulated a differential equation, Zuse deftly programmed it and Z4 produced the solution. Mr Stiefel was impressed. He decided to order a computer for the research institute in which he worked. The transaction was formally concluded on 12 July 1950, and a computer was delivered to ETH Zurich in September of the same year.
It is estimated that it cost about DM 60,000 to restore the computer, and ETH Zurich paid for the purchase DM 100,000 (to compare, an average monthly wage of the time amounted to about DM 180). This transaction was extremely profitable for its developer. Afterwards, the man established a company Zuse KG, which produced and sold computers for over a decade. Unfortunately, the company got into financial trouble in 1961 and a few years later the company was sold.
Emergence and Rise of the Lithuanians
While Zuse was dealing with financial challenges, intensive work was carried out in Lithuania occupied by the Soviets: the first Lithuanian computer Rūta was developed which was officially presented late 1962. As manager of the project Rūta Assoc. Prof. Gintautas Grigas at Vilnius University Institute of Mathematics and Informatics Mathematics says, the idea to develop such computing machine came when trying to correct the flaws of a device created by the Soviets.
'Russians copied one American machine but it did not work since Russian electronic lamps and their sockets were of poor quality and unreliable. They gave the machine to us to find out, why it could not work reliably and to improve it. We replaced half of the electronic lamps with diodes, made some other alterations and computer's reliability increased. A computer had about 2,000 lamps which meant that one lamp out of the 2 000 stopped functioning every 30 minutes. Even if we had achieved the state where failure occurred every hour instead of every 30 minutes, there would have been little benefit. For this reason, we decided to develop a new, more modern, transistor-based computer. All work had to be done from scratch because principles of operation of this electronic device are totally different,' Mr Grigas remembered.
'It took two years to produce Rūta, and the result exceeded all expectations. Differently from most of machines of the time, which occupied an entire room, Rūta was relatively small - about 2 metres high and 2 metres wide. There was an 'input device' next to it which was no bigger than a kitchen cupboard.'
In fact, it was not intended for scientific research or complicated calculations, but for company accounting and accounting of corporate activities. For example, the computer developed by Lithuanians calculated parts manufactured in factories, work efficiency and similar things. All this information was stored in certain external storage devices, namely, in punch cards.
'Our computing machine was extraordinary not only for its size but also for the fact that no special knowledge or education was required to manage it. To put it simply, it functioned much like a calculator. Besides, differently from big computing machines, which often malfunctioned and, therefore, engineers had to continuously watch them, Rūta did not require continuous engineering maintenance,' Mr Grigas added.
Rūta's processor could carry out 2,500 operations per second. To compare, today a processor of an average computer performs tens of billions operations per second.
In 11 years, Lithuanians produced 701 Rūta computers. These machines were exported to different countries of the Soviet Union - Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, East Germany. As Mr Grigas noted, a significant merit of Rūta was that it gave birth to the industry of computing machines in Lithuania. Lithuanians became the leaders in manufacturing of such machines in the Soviet Union. The first Rūta was later replaced by a bigger and more powerful model Rūta 110. Lithuanians have developed and produced many other computing machines.
Computers Increasingly Smaller, Lighter, but More Powerful
The first fully assembled computers suitable for home users were available a decade later. However, the real boom of computers started after 1991 when the World Wide Web (WWW) became accessible to everyone.
In 1996, 70.9 million personal computers were sold in the world. In 2000, this number amounted to 134.7 million; five more years later - to 218.5 million. But the year 2011 was the record year for computer manufacturers - 365.4 computers were sold worldwide. Ever since, the sales of computers decrease annually; but the dropping trend has slowed down in recent years, in fact. For instance, in 2018, according to the data of Gartner, 259.4 million computers were sold which is 1.3% less than the previous year.
As Simonas Tilindis, computer expert at Telia, noted, at present Lenovo is the leader in terms of computer sales in the world, Hewlett-Packard is the second, and Dell is the third. The top trio in Lithuania looks slightly different: Lenovo is the most popular, Asus is the second, and Hewlett-Packard is the third.
'The first factor which promotes computer improvement and competition among manufacturers is that computer components have become increasingly smaller, computers accommodate more Gigabytes and Gygahertz and they use battery more effectively. This allows computer manufacturers to produce thinner, lighter and more attractive computers which can be used all day long without the need of charging. Whereas a decade ago an average portable computer weighed about 3 kg, today computers of ultrabook type, which weigh about 1 kg, are extremely popular. The use of computer changes accordingly: before, a PC was a piece of equipment which was kept at home and gathered dust. Meanwhile, nowadays people take their computers everywhere they go: to a café, to a trip, to work, and the like,' Mr Tilindis said.
The second factor which changes the computer market is the growing game market. Actually, game developers have always been the ones who posed challenges to computer producers: games which demand increasingly greater capacity are issued annually; they require faster processing speed, more powerful graphics processing unit, more RAM, more hard drive space, faster internet connection with shorter delays. All these demands prompt computer manufacturers to develop faster and offer consumers innovation; in turn, people tend to pay more for quality entertainment.