Europe on the Brink
As you probably know, and there is more of this in my Earth history section, the 20th century started out fairly peacefully, with monarchies and empires “ruling” the world. But all was not quiet, and monarchal despotism, nationalism, radical socialism, and class unrest were going to tear the world apart within a decade or so. While the war to end all wars didn’t, the peace to begin global peace didn’t work either. Fairly immediately after the first war ended, the depression began. It started first in Europe and then spread to the US. To cut a long story short, it was not long -- before extreme radical forces began to rule and conquer. I had a chief executive at one time who told me “Desperate Times call for Desperate Men”. Well, that’s what happened -- in the creation of the USSR and the Nazis.

If I can move aside from the horror of those times, one outcome was a quantum leap in technology and the construction of the first real computers.

In the 1911, Tom Watson consolidated the “Computing - Tabulating - Recording (C-T-R)” and the “International Time Recording” Companies and in 1924, changed their name to “International Business Machines” -- IBM.

Paper Tape It seems that most inventions in computing started though, in people’s bedrooms and garages.

Konrad Zuse The first binary computer to be developed was by a German -- Konrad Zuse in his parent’s living room. The Z1 had 64 words of memory and a clock speed of 1hz. It used punched paper tape as input and output.

In the 1920s and 30s, there are a lot of public and secret efforts started to develop "Thinking Machines", essentially, machines that took different actions or branches based upon data.

A Punched Card
Commercially, machines like programmable tabulators were developed. These had cables that the operators would switch manually depending on the application -- sorting or counting. These machines were relatively inexpensive and could still be found in use into the 1970s. This mindset pegged the computer as something to solve complex mathematical problems - like counting payrolls - and were narrowly targeted.

Privately and secretly, more research was taking place in Britain, Germany and the US to develop truly programable computers that could use punched cards and paper tape, not just for data entry, but for program entry as well. So the computer would become "general purpose".

In Germany, Zuse's work continued, but under the Nazis, his work was directed towards a calculating machines for bombing trajectories.

Colossus Mark 2
In Britain, the "Colossus" computers (there were 10 built) were being developed by Tommy Flowers but they had a single-purpose -- to defeat the German military codes. Another effort to break the german "Enigma" codes was also underway, and this is where the wild genius of Alan Turing was used.

Eckert and Mauchly - The Great Grand Fathers of modern computers
The first real general-purpose programmable electronic computer is accredited to the work of J. Presper Eckert and John Maunchly. It was built between 1943 and 1946 at the University of Pennsylvania. It's name was ENIAC, an acronym for Electronic Numerical Integrator And Calculator. The pair went on to design the EDVAC, BINAC and UNIVAC 1. Parts of ENIAC are now at home in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, while other parts are still on display at U. Penn, the Computer History Museum, and a few other sites. ENIAC was one of the only early computers to be saved. All of the others were destroyed (we think), either by allied bombing raids, or to "maintain secrecy".

However, after the war, the story of ENIAC was released, the public imagination was captured, and a whole new world of computers was about to emerge.

ENIAC - The Electronic Numerical Integrator And Calculator

ENIAC at U. Penn.

The first general purpose computers used vacuum tubes and either cables, paper tape or punched cards to program their functions. This programming was the first generation of software.