A computer is a machine for manipulating data according to a list of instructions.
Computers take many physical forms. Early electronic computers were the size of a large room, consuming as much power as several hundred modern personal computers (and were nowhere near as advanced). Today, computers can be made small enough to fit into a wrist watch and be powered from a watch battery. Society has come to recognize personal computers and their portable equivalent, the laptop computer, as icons of the information age; they are what most people think of as "a computer".
However, the most common form of computer in use today is by far the embedded computer. Embedded computers are small, simple devices that are often used to control other devices-for example; they may be found in machines ranging from fighter aircraft to industrial robots, digital cameras, and even children's toys.
The ability to store and execute programs makes computers extremely versatile and distinguishes them from calculators. The Church-Turing thesis is a mathematical statement of this versatility: Any computer with a certain minimum capability is, in principle, capable of performing the same tasks that any other computer can perform. Therefore, computers with capability and complexity ranging from that of a personal digital assistant to a supercomputer are all able to perform the same computational tasks as long as time and storage capacity are not considerations.
The Jacquard loom was one of the first programmable devices.It is difficult to define any one device as the earliest computer. The very definition of a computer has changed and it is therefore impossible to identify the first computer. Many devices once called "computers" would no longer qualify as such by today's standards.Originally, the term "computer" referred to a person who performing numerical calculations (a human computer), often with the aid of a mechanical calculating device. Examples of early mechanical computing devices included the abacus, the slide rule and arguably the astrolabe and the Antikythera mechanism (which dates from about 150-100 BC). The end of the Middle Ages saw a re-invigoration of European mathematics and engineering, and Wilhelm Schickard's 1623 device was the first of a number of mechanical calculators constructed by European engineers.
However, none of those devices fit the modern definition of a computer because they could not be programmed. In 1801, Joseph Marie Jacquard made an improvement to the textile loom that used a series of punched paper cards as a template to allow his loom to weave intricate patterns automatically. The resulting Jacquard loom was an important step in the development of computers because the use of punched cards to define woven patterns can be viewed as an early, albeit limited, form of programmability.
In 1837, Charles Babbage was the first to conceptualize and design a fully programmable mechanical computer that he called "The Analytical Engine". Due to limited finance, and an inability to resist tinkering with the design, Babbage never actually built his Analytical Engine Large-scale automated data processing of punched cards was performed for the US Census in 1890 by tabulating machines designed by Herman Hollerith and manufactured by the Computing Tabulating Recording Corporation, which later became IBM. By the end of the 19th century a number of technologies that would later prove useful in the realization of practical computers had begun to appear: the punched card, Boolean algebra, the vacuum tube (thermionic valve) and the teleprinter.
During the first half of the 20th century, many scientific computing needs were met by increasingly sophisticated analog computers, which used a direct mechanical or electrical model of the problem as a basis for computation. However, these were not programmable and generally lacked the versatility and accuracy of modern digital computers.
A succession of steadily more powerful and flexible computing devices was constructed in the 1930s and 1940s, gradually adding the key features that are seen in modern computers. The use of digital electronics (largely invented by Claude Shannon in 1937) and more flexible programmability were vitally important steps, but defining one point along this road as "the first digital electronic computer" is difficult (Shannon 1940). Notable achievements include:
EDSAC was one of the first computers to implement the stored program (von Neumann) architecture.
Several developers of ENIAC, recognizing its flaws, came up with a far more flexible and elegant design, which came to be known as the stored program architecture or von Neumann architecture. This design was first formally described by John von Neumann in the paper "First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC", published in 1945. A number of projects to develop computers based on the stored program architecture commenced around this time, the first of these being completed in Great Britain. The first to be demonstrated working was the Manchester Small-Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM) or "Baby". However, the EDSAC, completed a year after SSEM, was perhaps the first practical implementation of the stored program design. Shortly thereafter, the machine originally described by von Neumann's paper-EDVAC-was completed but did not see full-time use for an additional two years.
Nearly all modern computers implement some form of the stored program architecture, making it the single trait by which the word "computer" is now defined. By this standard, many earlier devices would no longer be called computers by today's definition, but are usually referred to as such in their historical context. While, the technologies used in computers have changed dramatically since the first electronic general-purpose computer of the 1940s, most still use the Von Neumann Architecture. The design made the universal computer a practical reality.
Microprocessors are miniaturized devices that often implement stored program CPUs.
Vacuum tube-based computers were in use throughout the 1950s, but were largely replaced in the 1960s by transistor-based devices, which were smaller, faster, and cheaper, used less power and were more reliable. These factors allowed computers to be produced on an unprecedented commercial scale. By the 1970s, the adoption of integrated circuit technology and the subsequent creation of microprocessors such as the Intel 4004 caused another leap in size, speed, cost and reliability. By the 1980s, computers had become sufficiently small and cheap to replace simple mechanical controls in domestic appliances such as washing machines. Around the same time, computers became widely accessible for personal use by individuals in the form of home computers and the now ubiquitous personal computer. In conjunction with the widespread growth of the Internet since the 1990s, personal computers are becoming as common as the television and the telephone and almost all modern electronic devices contain a computer of some kind.
Stored program architecture
The defining feature of modern computers which distinguishes them from all other machines is that they can be programmed. That is to say that a list of instructions (the program) can be given to the computer and it will store them and carry them out at some time in the future.
In most cases, computer instructions are simple: add one number to another, move some data from one location to another, send a message to some external device, etc. These instructions are read from the computer's memory and are generally carried out (executed) in the order they were given. However, there are usually specialized instructions to tell the computer to jump ahead or backwards to some other place in the program and to carry on executing from there. These are called "jump" instructions (or branches). Furthermore, jump instructions may be made to happen conditionally so that different sequences of instructions may be used depending on the result of some previous calculation or some external event. Many computers directly support subroutines by providing a type of jump that "remembers" the location it jumped from and another instruction to return to that point.
Program execution might be likened to reading a book. While a person will normally read each word and line in sequence, they may at times jump back to an earlier place in the text or skip sections that are not of interest. Similarly, a computer may sometimes go back and repeat the instructions in some section of the program over and over again until some internal condition is met. This is called the flow of control within the program and it is what allows the computer to perform tasks repeatedly without human intervention.
Comparatively, a person using a pocket calculator can perform a basic arithmetic operation such as adding two numbers with just a few button presses. But to add together all of the numbers from 1 to 1,000 would take thousands of button presses and a lot of time-with a near certainty of making a mistake. On the other hand, a computer may be programmed to do this with just a few simple instructions.
However, computers cannot "think" for themselves in the sense that they only solve problems in exactly the way they are programmed to. An intelligent human faced with the above addition task might soon realize that instead of actually adding up the entire numbers one can simply use the equation and arrive at the correct answer with little work.
In practical terms, a computer program might include anywhere from a dozen instructions to many millions of instructions for something like a word processor or a web browser. A typical modern computer can execute billions of instructions every second and nearly never make a mistake over years of operation.
Large computer programs may take teams of computer programmers' years to write and the probability of the entire program having been written completely in the manner intended is unlikely. Errors in computer programs are called bugs. Sometimes bugs are benign and do not affect the usefulness of the program, in other cases they might cause the program to completely fail (crash), in yet other cases there may be subtle problems. Sometimes otherwise benign bugs may be used for malicious intent, creating a security exploit. Bugs are usually not the fault of the computer. Since computers merely execute the instructions they are given, bugs are nearly always the result of programmer error or an oversight made in the program's design.
In most computers, individual instructions are stored as machine code with each instruction being given a unique number (its operation code or opcode for short). The command to add two numbers together would have one opcode, the command to multiply them would have a different opcode and so on. The simplest computers are able to perform any of a handful of different instructions, the more complex computers have several hundred to choose from-each with a unique numerical code. Since the computer's memory is able to store numbers, it can also store the instruction codes. This leads to the important fact that entire programs (which are just lists of instructions) can be represented as lists of numbers and can themselves be manipulated inside the computer just as if they were numeric data. The fundamental concept of storing programs in the computer's memory alongside the data they operate on is the crux of the von Neumann, or stored program, architecture. In some cases, a computer might store some or its entire program in memory that is kept separate from the data it operates on. This is called the Harvard architecture after the Harvard Mark I computer. Modern von Neumann computers display some traits of the Harvard architecture in their designs, such as in CPU caches.
While it is possible to write computer programs as long lists of numbers (machine language) and this technique was used with many early computers, it is extremely tedious to do so in practice, especially for complicated programs. Instead, each basic instruction can be given a short name that is indicative of its function and easy to remember-a mnemonic such as ADD, SUB, MULT or JUMP. These mnemonics are collectively known as a computer's assembly language. Converting programs written in assembly language into something the computer can actually understand (machine language) is usually done by a computer program called an assembler. Machine languages and the assembly languages that represent them (collectively termed low-level programming languages) tend to be unique to a particular type of computer. For instance, an ARM architecture computer (such as may be found in a PDA or a hand-held videogame) cannot understand the machine language of an Intel Pentium or the AMD Athlon 64 computer that might be in a PC.
Though considerably easier than in machine language, writing a long program in assembly language is often difficult and error prone. Therefore, most complicated programs are written in more abstract high-level programming languages that are able to express the needs of the computer programmer more conveniently (and thereby help reduce programmer error). High level languages are usually "compiled" into machine language (or sometimes into assembly language and then into machine language) using another computer program called a compiler. Since high level languages are more abstract than assembly language, it is possible to use different compilers to translate the same high level language program into the machine language of many different types of computer. This is part of the means by which software like video games may be made available for different computer architectures such as personal computers and various video game consoles.
The task of developing large software systems is an immense intellectual effort. It has proven, historically, to be very difficult to produce software with an acceptably high reliability, on a predictable schedule and budget. The academic and professional discipline of software engineering concentrates specifically on this problem.
How computers work
A general purpose computer has four main sections: the arithmetic and logic unit (ALU), the control unit, the memory, and the input and output devices (collectively termed I/O). These parts are interconnected by busses, often made of groups of wires.
The control unit, ALU, registers, and basic I/O (and often other hardware closely linked with these) is collectively known as a central processing unit (CPU). Early CPUs were comprised of many separate components but since the mid-1970s CPUs have typically been constructed on a single integrated circuit called a microprocessor
The control unit (often called a control system or central controller) directs the various components of a computer. It reads and interprets (decodes) instructions in the program one by one. The control system decodes each instruction and turns it into a series of control signals that operate the other parts of the computer. Control systems in advanced computers may change the order of some instructions so as to improve performance.
A key component common to all CPUs is the program counter, a special memory cell (a register) that keeps track of which location in memory the next instruction is to be read from.
The control system's function is as follows-note that this is a simplified description and some of these steps may be performed concurrently or in a different order depending on the type of CPU:
1. Read the code for the next instruction from the cell indicated by the program counter.
2. Decode the numerical code for the instruction into a set of commands or signals for each of the other systems.
3. Increment the program counter so it points to the next instruction.
4. Read whatever data the instruction requires from cells in memory (or perhaps from an input device). The location of this required data is typically stored within the instruction code.
5. Provide the necessary data to an ALU or register.
6. If the instruction requires an ALU or specialized hardware to complete, instruct the hardware to perform the requested operation.
7. Write the result from the ALU back to a memory location or to a register or perhaps an output device.
8. Jump back to step (1).
Since the program counter is (conceptually) just another set of memory cells, it can be changed by calculations done in the ALU. Adding 100 to the program counter would cause the next instruction to be read from a place 100 locations further down the program. Instructions that modify the program counter are often known as "jumps" and allow for loops (instructions that are repeated by the computer) and often conditional instruction execution (both examples of control flow).
It is noticeable that the sequence of operations that the control unit goes through to process an instruction is in itself like a short computer program - and indeed, in some more complex CPU designs, there is another yet smaller computer called a microsequencer that runs a microcode program that causes all of these events to happen.
Arithmetic/logic unit (ALU)
The ALU is capable of performing two classes of operations: arithmetic and logic.
The set of arithmetic operations that a particular ALU supports may be limited to adding and subtracting or might include multiplying or dividing, trigonometry functions (sine, cosine, etc) and square roots. Some can only operate on whole numbers (integers) whilst others use floating point to represent real numbers-albeit with limited precision. However, any computer that is capable of performing just the simplest operations can be programmed to break down the more complex operations into simple steps that it can perform. Therefore, any computer can be programmed to perform any arithmetic operation-although it will take more time to do so if its ALU does not directly support the operation. An ALU may also compare numbers and return boolean truth values (true or false) depending on whether one is equal to, greater than or less than the other ("is 64 greater than 65?").
Logic operations involve Boolean logic: AND, OR, XOR and NOT. These can be useful both for creating complicated conditional statements and processing boolean logic
Superscalar computers contain multiple ALUs so that they can process several instructions at the same time. Graphics processors and computers with SIMD and MIMD features often provide ALUs that can perform arithmetic on vectors and matrices.
Memory Magnetic core memory was popular main memory for computers through the 1960s until it was completely replaced by semiconductor memory.
A computer's memory can be viewed as a list of cells into which numbers can be placed or read. Each cell has a numbered "address" and can store a single number. The computer can be instructed to "put the number 123 into the cell numbered 1357" or to "add the number that is in cell 1357 to the number that is in cell 2468 and put the answer into cell 1595". The information stored in memory may represent practically anything. Letters, numbers, even computer instructions can be placed into memory with equal ease. Since the CPU does not differentiate between different types of information, it is up to the software to give significance to what the memory sees as nothing but a series of numbers.
In almost all modern computers, each memory cell is set up to store binary numbers in groups of eight bits (called a byte). Each byte is able to represent 256 different numbers; either from 0 to 255 or -128 to +127. To store larger numbers, several consecutive bytes may be used (typically, two, four or eight). When negative numbers are required, they are usually stored in two's complement notation. Other arrangements are possible, but are usually not seen outside of specialized applications or historical contexts. A computer can store any kind of information in memory as long as it can be somehow represented in numerical form. Modern computers have billions or even trillions of bytes of memory.
The CPU contains a special set of memory cells called registers that can be read and written much more rapidly than the main memory area. There are typically between two and one hundred registers depending on the type of CPU. Registers are used for the most frequently needed data items to avoid having to access main memory every time data is needed. Since data is constantly being worked on, reducing the need to access main memory (which is often slow compared to the ALU and control units) greatly increases the computer's speed.
Computer main memory comes in two principal varieties: random access memory or RAM and read-only memory or ROM. RAM can be read and written to anytime the CPU commands it, but ROM is pre-loaded with data and software that never changes, so the CPU can only read from it. ROM is typically used to store the computer's initial start-up instructions. In general, the contents of RAM are erased when the power to the computer is turned off while ROM retains its data indefinitely. In a PC, the ROM contains a specialized program called the BIOS that orchestrates loading the computer's operating system from the hard disk drive into RAM whenever the computer is turned on or reset. In embedded computers, which frequently do not have disk drives, all of the software required to perform the task may be stored in ROM. Software that is stored in ROM is often called firmware because it is notionally more like hardware than software. Flash memory blurs the distinction between ROM and RAM by retaining data when turned off but being rewritable like RAM. However, flash memory is typically much slower than conventional ROM and RAM so its use is restricted to applications where high speeds are not required
In more sophisticated computers there may be one or more RAM cache memories which are slower than registers but faster than main memory. Generally computers with this sort of cache are designed to move frequently needed data into the cache automatically, often without the need for any intervention on the programmer's part.
Hard disks are common I/O devices used with computers.
I/O is the means by which a computer receives information from the outside world and sends results back. Devices that provide input or output to the computer are called peripherals. On a typical personal computer, peripherals include input devices like the keyboard and mouse, and output devices such as the display and printer. Hard disks, floppy disks and optical discs serve as both input and output devices. Computer networking is another form of I/O.
Often, I/O devices are complex computers in their own right with their own CPU and memory. A graphics processing unit might contain fifty or more tiny computers that perform the calculations necessary to display 3D graphics. Modern desktop computers contain many smaller computers that assist the main CPU in performing I/O.
While a computer may be viewed as running one gigantic program stored in its main memory, in some systems it is necessary to give the appearance of running several programs simultaneously. This is achieved by having the computer switch rapidly between running each program in turn. One means by which this is done is with a special signal called an interrupt which can periodically cause the computer to stop executing instructions where it was and do something else instead. By remembering where it was executing prior to the interrupt, the computer can return to that task later. If several programs are running "at the same time", then the interrupt generator might cause several hundred interrupts per second, causing a program switch each time. Since modern computers typically execute instructions several orders of magnitude faster than human perception, it may appear that many programs are running at the same time even though only one is ever executing in any given instant. This method of multitasking is sometimes termed "time-sharing" since each program is allocated a "slice" of time in turn Before the era of cheap computers, the principle use for multitasking was to allow many people to share the same computer.
Seemingly, multitasking would cause a computer that is switching between several programs to run more slowly - in direct proportion to the number of programs it is running. However, most programs spend much of their time waiting for slow input/output devices to complete their tasks. If a program is waiting for the user to click on the mouse or press a key on the keyboard, then it will not take a "time slice" until the event it is waiting for has occurred. This frees up time for other programs to execute so that many programs may be run at the same time without unacceptable speed loss