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As big as a house to the top of your palm -- 50 years of computer evol

As big as a house to the top of your palm -- 50 years of computer evolution.

During a recent business trip to the east coast, I managed to squeeze into my agenda a visit to The Computer Museum at Boston's museum wharf. This exhibit of vintage photographs, videos and artifacts goes from the metallic-gray, house-sized machines of the 40s, decade by decade right up to the 90s. It explains how the contemporary political and economic status quo determined computer applications and how computer technology in turn, contributed to shape society. The exposition ends with a display case containing a laptop computer and, what else... a 95LX, the first HP Palmtop.

Back in 1945, a project that began at the University of Pennsylvania to automate production of military firing tables for World War II, yielded the first programmable electronic computer. This machine, called ENIAC (Electronic Numerator, Integrator, Analyzer and Computer), was the size of a small gymnasium, and was run by an elite group of operators. The interface between actual users and these operators was a programming diagram, punch cards and a printed report. ENIAC was installed at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory and its first task was to perform, in late 1945, a large and complex calculation on the feasibility of a proposed design for the H-bomb.

Today, 50 years later, in a less dramatic application, I am typing these lines on an HP Palmtop that is 18 times faster, 109,000 times smaller and about 2,000 times less expensive than ENIAC.

ENIAC was able to perform roughly 26,000 instructions per second and occupied 1,280 cubic feet of space (2,211,840 cubic inches). Its speed/size ratio, or Computing Power Density (CPD) was .0118 instructions per second/cubic inch.

My Palmtop occupies just 20.3 cubic inches and can perform 460,000 instructions per second, which gives it a CPD of 22,660 instructions per second/ cubic inch. In 50 years we have witnessed an increase in CPD from .0118 to 22,660 an improvement of 1.92 million times (or 192,000,000 %)!

Back when ENIAC-type performance and size was the accepted standard, there were visionaries who dreamed of pocket-sized ENIACs. Isaac Asimov, wrote in the early 1950s about a fictional hand computer... he carried always in his trouser that when fed data would chuckle away in obscene merriment for any length of time from a minute to a day. A computer magazine editorial in 1983 stated its idea of a dream machine would be a hand-held portable that could run the programs of the day as easily as child's play. One of those programs would have been Lotus 1-2-3, now an HP Palmtop built-in.

Sometimes we wonder why we have to wait a few seconds for our Palmtop to load PhoneBook or why it doesn't have a color screen or speech recognition. Its good to demand the most advanced features from manufacturers. We should not, however, loose our capacity to appreciate and be marveled by current hand-held computer technology. One way to regain this appreciation is to realize that the small machine we use everyday was only a dream, not so long ago.

Jose Patino El Paso, TX

iPhone Life magazine


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