Last fall, Weber State University conducted a ribbon cutting for a new building on the Davis campus in Layton — Computer & Automotive Engineering (CAE). This month, the computer history museum inside the building just opened. The museum makes clear that no matter your age, you have witnessed a rapidly moving transition from an analog to a digital world. More, you, yourself, have been digitized.
Prior to computing in the mid-20th century, calculation was done using fingers, chalk, pencil, abaci, slide rules and mechanical calculators. These were all used in World War II to calculate shell trajectories. While the U.S. invested $400K to build the “first computer” ENIAC to perform those calculations, it remained unfinished at the war’s end. Prior to the 1950s, “computers” referred to humans who operated these various calculating machines.
The new museum includes a mechanical calculator and a portable Japanese soroban abacus. The Japanese adopted and modified the Chinese abacus. They realized that sharpening the edges of the beads allowed for faster operation. In fact, during the U.S. occupation of Japan after WWII, U.S. serviceman Thomas Wood and Kiyoshi Matsuzaki of Japan pitted their respective calculator and soroban. Kiyoshi won.
Storing information prior to electronic computers came in numerous forms: scrolls and books mostly. Historians often label the punched cards used for weaving looms as the first stored “programs.” Punched cards, which were used in computers for most of the 20th century, were inspired by that and the punched train tickets of the 1800s.
In 1897, player pianos, used punched holes to store songs. Air would flow through holes on the paper scroll to trigger a hammer hitting a particular string — an interesting mix of ancient technology, the scroll, pneumatics and digitization, as the note was either on or off. Music was also stored by groves on a moving surface. The museum has an original Edison wax cylinder phonograph displayed.
While not digital, magnetic media joined music storage techniques and was used by sound engineers starting in the 1930s, by consumers in the 1950s with reel-to-reel tape, and exploded with cassette recorders/players and pre-recorded eight tracks in the 1960s. The Sony Walkman allowed portable playing of recorded audio starting in 1979. Prior to the Walkman, the most portable music was transistor radios, which started soon after the invention of the transistor in the 1950s.
Computers began using magnetic media to store 1s and 0s in the 1950s, using tiny magnetized metal donuts, then tapes and disks. Consumers became familiar with 5 ¼ and 3 ½ storage disks when microcomputers like the IBM-PC and Apple entered the home. The Roy company Iomega exploded in the 1990s with its Zip disk and imploded as quickly in the early 2000s as optical media (CDs and DVDs) and solid-state (thumb drive) storage came on.
Most consumers bought digital music for the first time with pre-recorded CDs in the 1980s, mostly replacing records, and it went personal with the Sony Discman by 1984. With computers having entered the home, software tools to rip and store music from CDs arrived and made songs portable with the Rio MP3 player in 1998. Sharing songs took a leap when the music sharing site Napster began in 1999.
By 2001, 500 million users surfed the web, sharing music, buying Beanie Babies on eBay and finding information once mostly found in phone books and encyclopedias through Yahoo, Google and Wikipedia. Meanwhile, digital still and video cameras began replacing film and analog versions, outpacing them in 2003.
In 2007, all the digitization and connections came together in the iPhone. The iPhone combined still and video cameras, electronic games, calculation, music, data storage of names and addresses, internet access, calculators, cellphone voice and texting, GPS and potentiometer (measuring location and motion), and more.
Today, 5 billion web and 3 billion smartphone users roam the world, leaving their digital traces as they go. Telecom, social media, smartphone and online retailer companies track those traces, creating our “digital twins.” Software parses pictures and text, correlating data and anticipating behavior, offering opportunities to users. No government or company has a complete picture, but that’s the discussion for all of us going forward as the tools to synthesize all our data becomes more sophisticated and we balance convenience, safety and privacy.
From its abaci and piano rolls to its microcomputers and Google Glass, the Weber State University Digital History Museum in the Computer & Automotive Engineering Building (2750 University Park Blvd., Layton — open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.) is a nostalgic look at days past and a reminder of what we gain and lose as we move forward. However that makes you feel personally, it is worth a visit.