Electronic Inventions

In the 1900s, groups of inventive people often worked together in private and government laboratories to develop both methods of programming and electronic circuitry. But the ways that they would use these devices, and the skills that they gained to use them, shaped their personal identity and sometimes took a playful turn.

Compiling routine A-0, early 1950s

Compiling routine A-0, early 1950s

Grace Hopper and her colleagues at Remington-Rand UNIVAC in Philadelphia developed compilers, methods that made it easier to program mainframe computers. Not only were their ideas a personal expression of how they could speed data processing, but compilers would over time find use in millions of individual computing devices.

Grace Murray Hopper, 1960

Grace Murray Hopper, 1960

Courtesy of Grace Hopper

Drawing from compiling routine, early 1950s

Drawing from compiling routine, early 1950s

Prototype electronic calculator, 1967

A Texas Instruments team in Dallas, Texas, led by Jack Kilby built this prototype. TI first sold chips to other handheld calculator manufacturers and then began selling calculators itself. These would become the personal calculating device of countless students and professionals, selling in the tens of millions.

Gift of Texas Instruments

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Jack Kilby with prototype electronic calculator and microchips, around 1987

Jack Kilby with prototype electronic calculator and microchips, around 1987

Courtesy of Southern Methodist University and Texas Instruments

Forrest M. Mims’s copy of BASIC for the Altair, around 1975

Journalist and early Altair microcomputer owner Forrest M. Mims III owned this BASIC tape. During the 1970s, microcomputers began to sell to individuals, many of whom used a programming language called BASIC. BASIC for the Altair was one of the first products of Micro-Soft (now Microsoft), whose early employees are shown in the photograph.

Gift of Forrest M. Mims III

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Staff of Micro-Soft, 1978

Staff of Micro-Soft, 1978

Courtesy of Jerry Schneider

Prototype for Newton Personal Digital Assistant, around 1990

This is a test model for the Newton, a handheld device designed to assist in a range of personal tasks. Rodney Sol Furmanski, a mechanical engineer by training, used this prototype to test the Newton operating system.

Gift of Rose Furmanski in Memory of Rodney Sol Furmanski

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Laboratory Computers

Early electronic computers were large and expensive. They required an entire staff of operators, and were too costly for personal use. Nonetheless, a few individualistic programmers designed playful demonstrations in which computers attempted games like chess and tic-tac-toe.

Women at the console of a Ferranti Mark I*, around 1953

Women at the console of a Ferranti Mark I*, around 1953

Courtesy of Onno Zweers

Ferranti Mark I* Williams tube, 1951

The Ferranti Mark I* was one of the first commercial computers built in Great Britain. British schoolmaster Christopher Strachey developed a program that allowed him to play checkers on the computer and arranged for the screen to look like a checkerboard.

Gift of Ferranti, Ltd.

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The Ferranti Mark* I Williams tube, side view

The Ferranti Mark* I Williams tube, side view

Margaret Fox’s SEAC game cartridge, around 1960

Margaret Fox kept this game cartridge for the SEAC computer. The machine was programmed to compute prime numbers, but also to play tic-tac-toe and generate musical selections. SEAC, built at the National Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C., in the 1950s, carried out calculations for military and scientific use. Demonstrations for visitors took a lighter tone.

Gift of Vicki Stauffacher

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SEAC with operators, around 1952

SEAC with operators, around 1952

Courtesy of National Bureau of Standards

An Wang’s LOCI-2 electronic calculator, 1965–1968

An Wang’s Massachusetts firm, Wang Laboratories, claimed that this programmable instrument, which evaluated useful scientific functions, opened “new vistas to your personal computing.” It sold for several thousand dollars.

Gift of Computer Sciences Corporation

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An Wang with microcomputers, around 1976

An Wang with microcomputers, around 1976

Courtesy of Computer History Museum