Why is it important to study the history of computers?

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There are many technological advances many of us assume have been with us forever, and for some of us, technology like computers have been around longer than we have. Most of us are more interested in advances or future enhancements than in the past. After all, why is the history...

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There are many technological advances many of us assume have been with us forever, and for some of us, technology like computers have been around longer than we have. Most of us are more interested in advances or future enhancements than in the past. After all, why is the history of a piece of technology important to now?

Some techno-historians believe rudimentary computers were invented well before the 1800s. Like much of our technology, the computer was invented in response to the need for a faster way to perform a repetitious and time-consuming function. Would you be surprised to learn that one of the earliest computer applications using code was created in 1801 by a French inventor? In the initial version, wooden blocks were used to punch instructions on a loom to weave designs. A similar model was used many years later to punch codes onto cards. The cards were subsequently fed into a machine that read the punches and performed the calculation. Fast forward more than two hundred years later, and the evolution of that simple design is truly remarkable!

The study of the history of any technology is crucial because often times the original design influences a future design not always related or in the same field as the original. The card punch design was used to compile health information and was adopted to tabulate the 1890 Census. By the 1950s, punch cards lead to the development of the need for concise computer language to operate. Meanwhile, transistors and circuits became more sophisticated, and inventors were able to adapt the punch card language to electronic circuits. From the meager loom to the supercomputer, the simplicity of design leads to adaptation of the original idea to fit new applications. The study of history is how we rethink the old and find new applications.

The best way to answer the question is that you can’t know where you are going until you know where you have been! All new technologies, including computers, evolve from an original, but that doesn’t necessitate we presume the original no longer has a purpose or is less valued. Much of our technology is repurposed for different applications, and that may be the best reason to study the history of computers.

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It is important to study the history of something in order to better and more fully understand the present state of an industry or idea. Computers and associated concepts are a lot like science in that current knowledge is built upon the established processes, ideas, and concepts of previous pioneers. Studying the history of computers is a way of paying tribute to those who came before, but more importantly, the previous knowledge in the field is the foundation of what is current. In order to fully understand something, you have to know and understand the foundation. As a computer user, I might not need to understand much about computer history in order to operate a PC; however, I can diagnose problems and solve them better if I understand computer basics. Those basics intersect with the history of computers and how they developed. Those are basics now, but they weren't always basics. Knowing those basics and how they came to be the standardized base knowledge is important, because it creates a deeper and more robust set of knowledge in a user.

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