The Building Blocks of Modern Computing: What Computers Were Like in the 1950s

Can you imagine a world without smartphones, laptops, video games or even pocket calculators? That was the reality just 70 years ago, when computers were rare multimillion-dollar machines that took up entire rooms. But the groundbreaking technologies and concepts pioneered in the 1950s would lay the essential foundations for the electronic devices we rely on today.

Let‘s explore what computers were actually being used for during this transformative decade, and the key breakthroughs that overcame early limitations and paved the way for the future…

Setting the Stage: The Intimidating Computers of 1950

In the early 1950s, you wouldn‘t have any personal encounter with computers. These enigmatic devices were locked away in research facilities, worked on by specialized engineering teams in lab coats. The very first computers were created during World War II for military ballistics and cryptanalysis. After the war, they found use in specialized scientific and industrial applications.

For example, in 1950 the Standards Eastern Automatic Computer (SEAC) was built for the U.S. National Bureau of Standards to analyze data from experimental rockets and jets. It had a clock speed of about 100 kHz and could perform approximately 10,000 additions/subtractions per second. The Harvard Mark II, created for naval research, was comparable – but weighed over 2,500 pounds.

To put things in perspective – that‘s less computing muscle than what‘s packed into the chip running a modern smart refrigerator!

The Dawn of Commercial Computers (1951-1956)

Scientific computers continued to rapidly advance in speed and capability over the course of the decade. But the 1950s also saw massive progress in making computers useful and economically viable for business applications.

One milestone was the UNIVAC I, the first commercially sold computer produced in the U.S. UNIVAC I was built by Remington Rand and purchased by the U.S. Census Bureau in 1951, showing its ability to analyze statistical data. Its unique selling point? – this machine could make decisions using conditional branching, unlike calculating devices like mechanical tabulators of the past.

Other companies jumped into the fray – IBM released its first large-scale scientific computer (the 701) in 1952, then the smaller 650 model aimed at businesses in 1954. About 2000 units of the IBM 650 were installed through the decade, to handle payroll, accounting, order and inventory management.

The 650 stored data and programs on magnetic drum memory. It could perform 29,000 additions per second!

Sparking the Computer Revolution: Key Innovations of the 1950s

What breakthroughs drove this rapid pace of advancement that would ultimately make computers accessible to all? Here are 4 that set the stage for the 1960s revolution:

1. Magnetic Core Memory

Prior to the 1950s, computer memory systems were limited – with options likes delay lines, matrix switches or perforated tapes. MIT researchers created the first magnetic core memory system in 1953 – this became the standard for decades, up until semiconductor RAM arrived. It was 100x faster and 1000x more compact than earlier systems!

2. Transistors

Vacuum tubes were previously used to build logic gates and processors, but they were big, energy-hungry and prone to failures. The invention of the transistor fundamentally transformed electronics – starting the trend of replacing tubes with compact, power-efficient and reliable solid-state components.


One major barrier in the early days was that programming had to be done in obscure machine code using numeric instruction sets. The introduction of high-level language compilers like FORTRAN (1955) and COBOL (1959) made it feasible for more people to write software, opening up endless new applications.

4. Integrated Circuits

The silicon microchip was arguably the most paradigm shifting breakthrough, laying the groundwork for modern microprocessors and computing devices. Jack Kilby built and demonstrated the first integrated circuit while working at TI in 1958!

So in a nutshell, by harnessing these innovations, the building blocks were now in place for smaller, cheaper, more reliable and easier-to-program computers just on the horizon.

What‘s Next? Personal Computers For All!

While they were still the exclusive domain of whitecoat technicians, corporations and government agencies, the most pioneering developments were made in the 1950s. These key enablers kicked off exponential advancement curves which repeat themselves as an ongoing theme throughout computing history!

The innovative technologies that sparked the computer revolution catalyzed progress towards technologies including:

  • Minicomputers and microcomputers small and affordable enough for small businesses (1965 onwards)
  • Electronic calculators incorporating integrated circuits for the mass consumer market (1970s)
  • Single-chip microprocessors allowing microcomputers to have similar capabilities to the room-sized giants of the 1950s (1971 Intel 4004 chip)
  • Personal home computers with TV interfaces for games and programming (Apple II in 1977, Commodore PET series)

So there you have it – the pioneering events and innovations of the 1950s which evolved into the affordable, ubiquitous information technology we marvel at today! Given how rapidly capabilities advanced early on, it makes you wonder – what can we expect our computers and AI assistants to be capable of 70 years from now? The possibilities seem endless!

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