For convenient reference, this informal paper presents the timeline of the notable computers during the early history of classical computing in the 20th century. I compiled this timeline due to my interest in the rapidly developing field of quantum computing, to assess what parallels might exist, now and in the future — after all, we’re supposed to learn lessons from history, lest we be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.
There is also a section at the end summarizing some of the early application milestones for early classical computers.
What’s not included
This timeline excludes most precursors to modern computing, including Babbage, Jacquard, and anything else prior to Hollerith and his punched cards.
Most of the machines span the period from 1940 to 1977.
The timeline also excludes all more-recent classical computers, including:
- Microprocessor-based computers
- Personal computers
- Networked clusters of servers
- Supercomputers based on large numbers of relatively standard microprocessors
- Smart phones
- Wearable computers
- Just about everything introduced after the early 1970’s.
They are excluded not because there is nothing interesting in those later machines, but because I was more interested in the early history that got the ball rolling and gave the field its main momentum. My interest is in the dynamics of early innovation for a new field.
Also excluded are real-time embedded computers, such as those used in avionics, including the space program and military programs. They are of course interesting, but not from the perspective of potential applications of quantum computing, at least as currently envisioned.
Also excluded are many interesting technical details such as word size, main memory technology, size, and limits, mass storage technology, size, and limits, I/O capabilities, etc., although some subset of such features might be added to this paper in future revisions. The Wikipedia pages for each classical computer can be consulted for such technical details.
There are a variety of existing timelines for computers online, but none had the conciseness and specific essential detail that I was looking for, so I cobbled my list together from various sources. In general, each entry in my timeline links to a Wikipedia page for that particular computer.
A few of my sources:
- The Computer History Museum Timeline of Computer History
- Wikipedia Timeline of computing
- Wikipedia History of computing hardware
- IBM — A History of Progress
- Google “timeline of digital computers” for many other sources.
Specific choices of machines to highlight was in part based on my own knowledge and experience.
An earlier version of this timeline was included in an earlier paper of mine:
- Criteria for Judging Progress of the Development of Quantum Computing
- March 9, 2018
The timeline in this paper will replace that earlier timeline.
Timeline of early classical computers
Just about every one of the machines on this list was a significant milestone of sorts in the annals of computing in the modern era. The point here for quantum computers is to identify how capable a given quantum computer is compared to any of these historic machines.
Note: Some of the years may be off by a year or two or a matter of dispute due to differences between data of announcement, initial testing, and production deployment.
- 1886 — Hollerith punched card tabulating machines. First test. Used for U.S. Census in 1890.
- 1920’s — punched card tabulating machines with plugboards — unit record equipment.
- 1930’s — punched card accounting machines.
- 1940’s — peak of tabulating and accounting machines.
- 1940 — Bell Labs Model I Relay Calculator (Complex Number Calculator) (electromechanical relays).
- 1941 — Zuse Z3 (electromechanical relays).
- 1942 — Atanasoff-Berry Computer (ABC) (first vacuum tube computer, use of binary arithmetic).
- 1943 — Colossus Mark 1 (UK) (vacuum tubes).
- 1943 — Bell Labs Model II Relay Interpolator (electromechanical relays).
- 1944 — Harvard Mark I — IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (ASCC) (electromechanical relays).
- 1944 — Bell Labs Model III Ballistic Computer(electromechanical relays).
- 1944 — Colossus Mark 2 (UK) (vacuum tubes — called “valves” or thermionic valves in the UK).
- 1946 — ENIAC (vacuum tubes, decimal — not binary).
- 1947 — Harvard Mark II (electromechanical relays).
- 1947 — transistor invented at Bell Labs. Not used in a computer until 1953.
- 1949 — Whirlwind (MIT) (vacuum tubes).
- 1949 — Manchester Mark 1 (vacuum tubes).
- 1949 — EDVAC (vacuum tubes).
- 1949 — EDSAC (vacuum tubes).
- 1950 — MESM — first computer in Soviet Union — Kiev, Ukraine (vacuum tubes).
- 1950 — SEAC (vacuum tubes).
- 1950 — SWAC (vacuum tubes).
- 1951 — Ferranti Mark 1 first commercially available general purpose electronic computer (vacuum tubes). Based on the Manchester Mark 1.
- 1951 — UNIVAC I first commercially available general purpose electronic computer in North America, second in world after Ferranti Mark 1 (vacuum tubes).
- 1952 — IAS (Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, von Neumann) (vacuum tubes).
- 1952 — ILLIAC I (vacuum tubes).
- 1952 — MANIAC I (vacuum tubes).
- 1953 — RAYDAC (vacuum tubes).
- 1953 — Manchester TC (first transistor computer).
- 1953 — IBM 701 (vacuum tubes).
- 1953 — JOHNNIAC (vacuum tubes).
- 1953 — Whirlwind core memory (vacuum tubes).
- 1954 — IBM 650 (vacuum tubes).
- 1954 — Bell Labs TRADIC (first U.S. transistor computer).
- 1955 — IBM 704 with core memory (vacuum tubes).
- 1955 — SAGE/AN/FSQ-7 (vacuum tubes).
- 1956 — MINAC/LGP-30 (vacuum tubes).
- 1955 — Harwell CADET (first fully transistorized computer in Europe).
- 1956 — TX-0 (MIT) (transistor).
- 1956 — IBM RAMAC 305 (vacuum tubes).
- 1958 — last year for introduction of any new computer designs based on vacuum tubes. Eleven years after the invention of the transistor.
- 1958 — UNIVAC II (vacuum tubes).
- 1958 — IBM 709 (vacuum tubes, last for IBM).
- 1958 — Philco S-2000 TRANSAC used much faster surface barrier transistors.
- 1958 — RCA 501 (transistors).
- 1958 — SAGE goes online (vacuum tubes).
- 1959 — virtually all new computer designs based on transistors. Twelve years after the invention of the transistor.
- 1959 — IBM 1401 (transistors).
- 1959 — IBM 1620 (transistors).
- 1959 — IBM 7090 (transistors). 7090 = 709-T (for transistorized) — they sound the same!
- 1960 — DEC PDP-1 first minicomputer (transistors, logic modules).
- 1960 — CDC 160 (transistors).
- 1961 — IBM 7030 Stretch (transistors — first for IBM).
- 1961 — Burroughs B5000 stack-oriented instruction set optimized for Algol 60 programming (transistors).
- 1962 — IBM 7094 (transistors).
- 1962 — Atlas early supercomputer (Univ. of Manchester).
- 1962 — CDC 1604 early commercial success for transistors.
- 1962 — DEC PDP-4.
- 1962 — ILLIAC II supercomputer.
- 1963 — IBM 7040/7044 scaled down 7090.
- 1963 — CDC 3600 48-bit scientific computing.
- 1963 — PDP-5 first successful minicomputer.
- 1964 — DEC PDP-6 36-bit precursor to PDP-10, low-cost mainframe-class power.
- 1965 — CDC 6600 one of first real, successful supercomputers.
- 1965 — DEC PDP-8 cheap, widely popular 12-bit minicomputer.
- 1965 — IBM System/360 relatively cheap corporate machine.
- 1965 — IBM System/360 Model 75 high performance with advanced parallel and overlapped hardware for real-time computing — supported the Apollo space program.
- 1966 — IBM System/360 Model 91 high-speed data processing for scientific applications.
- 1966 — ILLIAC III specialized SIMD pattern recognition computer.
- 1967 — DEC PDP-10 cheap but powerful mainframe popular with research labs and universities, timesharing and ARPANET.
- 1967 — GE 645 hardware protected memory system designed specifically to support the Multics operating system, precursor to UNIX.
- 1969 — CDC 7600 ten times the performance of the CDC 6600.
- 1969 — Data General Nova (medium-scale integrated circuits). First 16-bit minicomputer.
- 1969 — IBM System/3 mid-range, low-end business computer.
- 1970 — DEC PDP-11 major line of cheap but powerful 16-bit minicomputers.
- 1971 — IBM System/370 (integrated circuits).
- 1971 — CDC STAR-100 vector supercomputer, very limited success.
- 1971 — Intel 4004 4-bit microprocessor.
- 1972 — Goodyear STARAN associative memory parallel processor.
- 1972 — ILLIAC IV first massively parallel supercomputer (256 processors).
- 1974 — Intel 8080 8-bit microprocessor.
- 1974 — Motorola 6800 8-bit microprocessor.
- 1975 — IBM System/32 popular low-end successor to IBM System/3.
- 1976 — Cray-1 very successful vector processor supercomputer.
- 1977 — DEC VAX-11/780 popular and successful superminicomputer.
- 1978 — Intel 8086 16-bit microprocessor.
- 1979 — Motorola 68000 16-bit microprocessor.
And then came the microprocessor
And then… came the microprocessors and everything changed, dramatically.
Although the 8-bit Intel 8080 and Motorola 6800 were introduced in 1974, and the 4-bit Intel 4004 had been introduced in 1971, and these chips saw some success in embedded and industrial control applications, it wasn’t until the introduction of the 16-bit Intel 8086 and Motorola 68000 in 1978 and 1979 that people began to take the microprocessor seriously as replacement for the older minicomputers, as well as to create workstations and personal computers, and later as 32-bit and then 64-bit microprocessors were introduced, for servers, replacements for mainframe computers, and even for supercomputers.
The question is how quickly useful applications will appear on quantum computers compared to the pace they appeared on traditional digital computers.
Some historical precedents:
- 1890 — Hollereith punched cards used for U.S. Census.
- 1930’s — unit record equipment to support Social Security.
- 1940’s — relay computers — atomic bomb calculations.
- 1942 — ABC — solving linear equations.
- 1943–1944 — Colossus — used by British codebreakers to help in the cryptanalysis of the Lorenz cipher.
- 1945–1952 — ENIAC, ILLIAC 1 — Navier-Stokes fluid dynamics.
- 1946 — ENIAC — artillery firing tables, hydrogen bomb calculations.
- 1950 — ENIAC — weather forecast.
- 1950 — Whirlwind — proof of concept for aircraft early-warning radar.
- 1951 — Checkers.
- 1952 — Tic-tac-toe.
- 1952 — Predict results of a presidential election.
- 1955 — Theorem proof.
- 1957 — Chess.
- 1957 — FORTRAN programming language. Scientific applications in general.
- 1958 — Air defense (SAGE).
- 1961 — General Purpose Systems Simulator (GPSS).
- 1964 — Solve algebra word problems.
- 1964 — ELIZA natural language Q&A.
- 1964 Sabre — airline reservation system.
It’s not that these particular applications have significance or would be relevant to quantum computing, but simply that quantum computers will need to prove their utility for applications of comparable complexity in terms of both code and data complexity and capacity.
For more of my writing: List of My Papers on Quantum Computing.