Fundamentals of Computer Science II (CSC-152 98S)

A History of Computing

Do not take this survey before 9am on Wednesday, April 15, 1998!.

Before discussing the history of computing and computer science, I like to see what my students conceptions and misconceptions about computing are. This survey gives me a chance to gather that information. I would appreciate it if you would take it seriously. As your grade in the course does not depend on your answers to this survey, the survey is anonymous.

I understand that you may be guessing for many of these questions (e.g., you should read anything that says "When was" as "When might you guess ..").


These days, the term computer is used to describe a mechanical (or electromechanical) device used to perform computation (calculations based on information). There are both general-purpose computers, which can be programmed to perform a wide variety of computations and special-purpose computers which can perform only a limited variety of computations.

How else has the term computer been used?

When was the first special-purpose computer described?

When was the first special-purpose computer built?

When was the first general-purpose computer described?

When was the first general-purpose computer built?

What were the first general purpose computers used for?

For many computer scientists, computer science is the study of what is and what is not computable. When do you think that people started studying this question?

An algorithm is a set of step-by-step operations for performing a computation. For example, one might give instructions for placing the elements of list in order or computing the median of a number of grades.

When was the first algorithm described?

Should algorithms be protected by intellectual property law (copyright, patent, trademark, trade secret)? If so, which kind?

A programming language is a formal notation for describing computer programs.

When was the first programming language described? Was it before or after the first computer was built?

Punch cards are what they sound like: small pieces of cardboard that are punched so as to represent information. Punch cards were used for input to and output from for the first computers.

When were punch cards first used?

Can you think of a use of punch cards other than for the computer?

The Internet is a global "network of networks" that makes it possible to transmit information not just between computers at one location, but between computers at different locations.

When was the Internet developed?

Why was the Internet developed?

Hypertext is a strategy for representing information in which the information is segmented into small nodes or pages which are then connected by links. Importantly, a single node can be linked to many other nodes, creating multiple ways of stepping through the pieces of information.

When was the first hypertext written?

When was the term "hypertext" coined? Is that before or after the first hypertext was written.

The World-Wide Web is a hypertext system that uses the Internet for delivery of contents. When was the World-Wide Web developed?

In early computers, one program at a time was loaded, the program ran to completion, output was printed, and then the next program was loaded and the cycle began again. In more modern computers, such as the Vax, it is possible for more than one user to compute at the same time. When did multi-user computing begin?

Databases are popular computer programs that permit their users to gather and analyze information. It is becoming increasingly possible to compose the information from multiple databases to develop even more data about a person, place, or thing.

Who should have the rights to control the information about a person in the database? The person whose information is in the database? The entity that created the database? The government? No one?

As some of the questions above suggest, computers have also had enormous social impact. Here are a few additional questions on the impact of computers.

It has been said that computers and the Internet have forced us to rethink our intellectual property laws. Why?

What are some other positive effects that computers have had on the workplace?

What are some other negative effects that computers have had on the workplace?

Zapco(tm) has hired Geeks-r-us(tm) to write a custom program for their medical radition treatment device. When Dr. Fred uses the program, a bug in the chip used in the treatment device make the program fail to run correctly and the device provides ten times the reasonable level of radition to a patient. Who should be responsible? Legally? Morally?

Ten years ago, the Department of Motor Vehicles hired Geeks-r-us(tm) to write an automobile registration management system. Last month, after ten years and $2 billion in payments, Geek-r-us(tm) gave up, declaring the project impossible. Last week, Joe and Jane Student got a license plate for their 1970 T-bird. Almost immediately afterwards, they were chased by the police and arrested at gunpoint for driving a stolen vehicle. Why? Because four years prior, a car with those same plates had been stolen and the department of motor vehicles reissues plates after they haven't been renewed for three years. Both Joe and Jane missed an exam because of the arrest. Who should be responsible? Legally? Morally?

Disclaimer Often, these pages were created "on the fly" with little, if any, proofreading. Any or all of the information on the pages may be incorrect. Please contact me if you notice errors.

Source text last modified Wed Apr 15 09:40:53 1998.

This page generated on Tue Jan 12 12:03:03 1999 by SiteWeaver.

Contact our webmaster at