We’ve come a long way

I have a subscription to a magazine called Make (actually I should probably think about renewing it) that is geared toward digital do-it-yourselfers. There are articles on everything from building simple little robots to automating your house to making your vacuum mold to general interest articles.
They actually have a good website for anyone who is interested at makezine.com.
I mention all this because there was an article in a recent issue that chronicled some of the important stages in the evolution of the modern desktop computer. You wouldn’t know it by looking at today’s computers, but historically the one great limiting factor in the production of a computer was memory. Until relatively recently, memory was tremendously expensive.
To give you some idea of what I mean the first computer highlighted in the article was build in 1952 and was able to store ten, ten digit numbers at a cost of $1.8 million (that is 1952 dollars, so if you are ambitious maybe you can figure out what that is in 2008 dollars–probably quite a lot more than you paid for your PC).
As surprising as that bit of information was, what really caught my eye was a computer built in 1967 that boasted 4KB of RAM at the bargain price of $250,000 (you maybe notice an inverse trend here where memory size increases and price decreases).
What was so interesting about this particular machine was that each of the Apollo moon missions had four of these units on board. Now to put this all into perspective with the sort of computing power we dabble with everyday, the average cell phone has about 16MB of RAM.
That means that you would need about 4,000 of the computers used on the Apollo missions to equal the memory capacity of a common cellphone that you can pick up for about $100.
On the one hand, we can perhaps better appreciate the ingenuity of NASA engineers and astronauts that were made such great achievements with relatively meager technical resources.
On the other hand, we can look closer to our own time and perhaps better appreciate the enormous potential that we have at our immediate disposal. I mentioned that a cell phone has perhaps 16MB of RAM, which is a small fraction of the 4GB of RAM that I have in my $1,500 PC (that would be the equivalent of 1,000,000 Apollo mission computers).
I admit that buying music and renting movies online, making 3D models, removing dust from photos and surfing the web are all pretty cool, but it sure doesn’t compare with going to the moon.
I find it really exciting to think about the future of computing and how we put computers to work for us in our lives. The state of computing as we know it today is just embarking on a new era.
To this point, it has taken huge investments from the public and private sectors to create the infrastructure and machines that are today accessible to virtually everyone whereas they were only previously available to a limited few.
Computers no longer cost more than houses; you don’t have to be a university or government researcher to make use of the Internet. And as successive generations grow up with the unprecedented access to data networks and raw computing power, I think that there is potential for people to put it all together in new ways that radically change the we live.
Right now, we are still figuring out what to do with it all. We watch movies, listen to music, e-mail our friends and do our accounting. We use our computers for entertainment and to help provide for some conveniences in the relief from the more mundane tasks we face. This is only scratching the surface of the huge potential that each of us holds in our hands.
Troy L’Hirondelle is a programmer and systems administrator at Times Web Design.

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