Understanding Computers

Have you ever heard the phrase “computer literate?”  Well unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few decades, the term probably describes you. Computer literacy refers to the ability of an individual to efficiently use and understand computers.  Each year more Americans spend time on a computer, tablet, or Smartphone than the year prior.  They are getting increasingly better at everything from word processing and emailing to utilizing social media and finding online discount codes.  This flurry of activity is leading to the highest rate of computer literacy ever recorded.

One drawback of such a rapidly increasing computer literacy rate is that many people who are pretty good with computers do not know the history behind them, or how they work.  This may seem inconsequential, but studies suggest that bolstering one’s understanding can lead to a better overall experience with electronic technologies.  With this in mind, here is a brief history of computers as well as their main functions.
Where did Computers come from?

In it’s most basic form, a computer is an electronic machine that accepts information, stores it, processes it, and finally returns the results to the user.  In many ways it is like an ultra-advanced calculator, a machine with the ability to accept input and process output.  In 1937 Howard Aiken, a young student at Harvard student pursuing his PhD, dreamed of a calculating machine that could perform advanced equations that were beyond human computation.  With the backing of Harvard University, Aiken formed a strategic partnership with IBM to see what they could come up with.  In 1943 their result was revealed to the world in the form of the Mark 1 computer, also known as the IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, or ASCC for short.  This early device is generally accepted as the first real computer.  Computers have changed a lot since the ASCC, but they still perform four major functions:


Input is the information fed into the computer. Often it is sent from a device like a keyboard or your mouse.  Once a computer accepts your input, it can do either one of two things: store it or process it.


If the information that is sent into the computer is not going to be used instantly, it can be stored until it is ready to use.  This is where your computer’s memory comes in.  You are probably most familiar with RAM (Random Access Memory), which is temporary memory that stores data and programs that need processing.


Once the information that has been input to the computer is ready to be used, it is processed.  Processing is done through the Central Processing Unit (CPU), which is like the brain of the computer.  Often the quality of the CPU and the speed with which information is processed is a large factor in determining a computer’s value.


This refers to when the processed information is returned to the user.  Sometimes the output can appear on your monitor, for example as when you type a letter on your keypad.  Output can also be physical, as when you print something from your computer.

A Good Foundation

This article is only a very brief introduction to the origins of computers and what they do but it should still be beneficial.   For one thing, now that you realize that the processing unit of a computer is what you’re paying for, you’ll be better armed the next time you need to buy one.  Also, by understanding where computers came from and what they do, you should be able to have a stronger appreciation for how powerful they are today.

Stefan Georgi has been an avid computer user and enthusiast for over twenty years.