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What were computers originally made for and what difference did it make to society when people started to use them at home?

TECHNOLOGY: Rueben Brudeikin, aged 10 from Churchill Park School, asked this question.

The very first “computers” were actually collections of humans who each did a piece of a math calculation, where the last person provided the final step to an answer. These were first mentioned around 1600 (417 years ago!). Think of it like the whispering game where each person tells the next what they heard, and wonder if they ever got the right answer!

The very first digital computer, like we have today, was built over 3 years 1943-1946 (71 years ago), instead of the few minutes it takes today, and was called ENIAC! It was the same size as the typical house, occupying about 180m2, and was made solely to calculate artillery firing trajectories for the United States Army during and after World War II. ENIAC is now at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C if you want to see it.

Computers didn’t really “come home” until 1990, only 27 years ago. They were used then much like they are today, to communicate and share ideas, although YouTube videos and Facebook came much later! Computers in the home have radically changed how we get information and entertainment. Ask your parents or teacher about phone books, paper maps (or being lost), only having 3 television stations, or only having library books to find facts for your book report (or worse, having to actually read the book! Sorry teacher!).

Our expert

Distinguished Professor Geoff Chase from the University of Canterbury answered this question. He is a Fellow of Royal Society Te Apārangi, which means he’s one of the top experts in his field of engineering. 

For more information on our expert, visit his profile: Geoff Chase