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One way or another, all these developments bring us to the early days of modern computing. The accumulator register of Leibniz’s calculator, Jacquard’s loom, Babbage’s engines, Hollerith’s machines, the rules of Boolean logic – all this and much more, in an age of automation and impelled by the pressures of the Second World War, paved the way for the birth of modern computers.

All that was left was to overcome the physical limitations of mechanical technologies. And inventors and scientists began to achieve this, first with electromechanical technologies (relays), then with electrical systems (vacuum tubes), and finally by electronic means (transistors, integrated circuits, miniaturised integration, integration on a large scale, integration on a very large scale, etc.). After the first experimental computers (ABC, ASCC, etc.) and the first computers for war-related uses (ENIAC, Colossus, ACE, etc.), the first machines for scientific computing (EDSAC) appeared. Almost all these early computers aspired to be general-purpose devices – “universal machines”.

Two of the first computer scientists, J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly (both ENIAC engineers), soon decided to make the leap to the business world. In 1950, they designed the first general-purpose commercial computer: the UNIVAC I (Universal Automatic Computer I). UNIVAC was known, amongst other things, for its innovative approach to secondary storage, on magnetic tapes and in program libraries with predefined routines (VI-1). Thanks to the work of the engineer Grace Hopper, UNIVAC was also the starting point for the definition of programming languages and for innovation in this area.

After resting on its laurels for some time, IBM, the company that dominated the business data processing market at the time, finally decided to start manufacturing computers. The company began by equipping some of its punched card processing systems with processing power and later designed completely new computers using circuits implemented with vacuum tubes (VI-2). In just a few years, the race to innovate was under way. Core storage was one of the major advances (VI-3), and programming based on physical arrangement of wires and hardwired routines (VI-4) was a forerunner to present-day software.

The first big electronic computers of the 1940s and 1950s caused both amazement and widespread fear. People were astonished by the lightning speed at which these “giant electronic brains”, as the media called them, were able to solve complex problems, and frightened by the possibility that they might be used to control all aspects of our activity (VI-5).

Photo album

1.jpgVI-1-1 / Original UNIVAC tape reel

2.jpgVI-1-2 / Original UNIVAC portfolio


3.jpgVI-2-1 / Security patch


4.jpgVI-2-2 / Pluggable bits (IBM 704)


5.jpgVI-2-3 / Pluggable board (IBM 650)


6.jpgVI-3-1 / Big core memory board


7.jpgVI-4-1 / IBM board


8.jpgVI-4-2 / Pluggable board


9.jpgVI-5-1 / Electronic Brains, first book of computers


10.jpgVI-5-2 / TIME magazine cover page


11.jpgVI-5-3 / The Computer Revolution from E.C. Berkeley