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When Did the Digital Age Begin?

By Herbert Bruderer

February 8, 2021

When did the digital age begin? There is no clear answer.

• A. Since time immemorial, with finger reckoning.

People have probably been counting and calculating with their fingers – a natural calculating tool – since time immemorial. The word digital comes from the Latin digitus, finger. With two hands, numbers up to 9999 can be represented (see Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Hand counting system. Counting and calculating with the fingers was once common. These instructions are taken from the first part of the work Summa de arithmetica geometria of Luca Pacioli (1523). Credit: ETH Library, Zurich, Rare books collection.

• B. Thousands of years ago with the abacus.

The abacus is considered the first (artificial) digital calculating device. There are two main forms: Line boards (counting boards, calculating boards, counter boards) and bead frames (arithmetical frames, counting frames). This popular mathematical instrument was widely used and can still be found today at countless flea markets. Already the ancient Greeks and the Romans calculated with it. Among the most famous bead frames are the Chinese, the Japanese, and the Russian abaci (see Fig. 2). From the Middle Ages, counter boards were also used. It is not known who invented the abacus or when.

Fig. 2: Chinese abacus (suanpan). This abacus, acquired in Beijing in 1983, was still in use at that time at the checkout counters of department stores. It is suited to the four basic arithmetic operations, as well as for square roots and cube. Credit: Aldo Lardelli, Studiensammlung Kern, Aarau.

• C. In the 17th century with the advent of mechanical calculating machines.

Important inventors of mechanical calculating machines (see Fig.3) were Wilhelm Schickard (Germany, 1623), Blaise Pascal (France, 1642), and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (Germany, 1673). These digital calculators mastered two to four basic arithmetic operations, depending on the model. Digital were also the calculating rods of John Napier (Scotland, 1617), which served for multiplication and division. In the mid-19th century, mechanical calculating machines experienced a boom with the arithmometer of Charles-Xavier Thomas (France, 1820). A special variant were the inexpensive sliding bar calculators created by Heinrich Kummer (Germany, 1847), which were intended to facilitate addition and subtraction. The peak of mechanical calculating machines was the world-famous Curta of Curt Herzstark (Austria, 1938), which was mass-produced in Liechtenstein from 1948.

Fig. 3: Pascaline. Eight-place machine for Marguerite Périer. Credit: Muséum Henri-Lecoq, Ville de Clermont-Ferrand, picture: Stéphane Vidal.

• D. End of the 19th century with the introduction of punched card machines.

Herman Hollerith (USA) developed a punch card machine (see Fig. 4) for the first American census (1890). Digital punched card machines were in use worldwide until the 1980s. Charles Babbage (U.K.) used punched cards for his unfinished analytical engine (1834). He was inspired to do so by the French automatic looms (invented by Basile Bouchon, Jean-Baptiste Falcon, Jacques Vaucanson, and Joseph-Marie Jacquard).

Fig. 4: Replica of the Hollerith census machine by Roberto Guatelli. Hermann Hollerith (1860–1929) built this punched card machine (counting and sorting machine, tabulator, and pantograph card punch) for the American census in 1890. Credit: Computer History Museum, Mountain View, CA.

• E. In the 1940s with the appearance of the electromechanical relay calculators (e.g., Bell calculator, Harvard Mark, Zuse) and the electronic vacuum tube computers (e.g., ABC, Eniac, Colossus, see Fig. 5).

Fig. 5: The Atanasoff-Berry computer (ABC). The binary vacuum tube computer of John Vincent Atanasoff and Clifford Edward Berry (1942) from Ames (Iowa) was reconstructed in 1996. The ABC is regarded as the world's first digital electronic computer. Credit: Computer History Museum, Mountain View,  CA/picture: Mark Richards).

• F. Starting in the 1970s with the displacement of logarithmic (analog) slide rules (linear slide rules, circular slide rules, cylindrical slide rules, pocket watch slide rule) and mechanical (digital) calculating machines by electronic (digital) calculators (see Fig. 6). The Internet came into the world in 1969.

Fig. 6: Electronic pocket calculator. The first programmable electronic pocket calculator, the Hewlett-Packard 65, from the year 1974. Credit: Geodätisches Institut der Leibniz-Universität Hannover.

•  G. In the 1990s with the boom of the World Wide Web (Tim Berners Lee, 1989).

• H. From the turn of the millennium with achievements such as search engines, social networks, mobile phones (iPhone from Apple in 2007). The prerequisite for rapid digitization was powerful computers and storage. The digital transformation accelerated in the last 20 years. Artificial intelligence, however, emerged as early as the 1950s, and robots are still much older.

Creation of selected IT companies
1975    Microsoft
1976    Apple
1994    Amazon
1995    Ebay
1998    Tencent
1999    Alibaba
2000    Baidu
2008    Airbnb
2009    Uber
2009    Whatsapp
2010    Instagram
2015    Alphabet

Looking at the digital age in a broader sense, variant B (abacus) seems to me to be the most convincing. In a narrower sense, variant G (boom of the Web) is the most likely.

Analog and digital calculating aids were used in parallel for centuries: analog logarithmic slide rules and digital mechanical calculating machines. And for a long time there was a competition between analog and digital electronic calculators.

What does predigital age mean?
Time and again, one reads about the predigital age. Most people probably mean a period that ended in the second half of the 20th century. For many people, digital and electronic are synonyms. If the digital age starts with finger-reckoning, there would be no predigital age....

Reference
Bruderer, Herbert: Milestones in Analog and Digital Computing, Springer Nature Switzerland AG, Cham, 3rd edition 2020, 2 volumes, 2113 pages, 715 illustrations, 151 tables, https://www.springer.com/de/book/9783030409739

Selected bibliography
Aspray, William (ed.): Computing before computers, Iowa State University Press, Ames, Iowa 1990, x, 266 pages
Bauer, Friedrich: Origins and foundations of computing, Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Heidelberg 2010, viii, 142 pages
Breton, Philippe: Une histoire de l'informatique, Editions La Découverte, Paris 1987, Editions du Seuil, Paris 1990, x, 261 pages
Campbell-Kelly, Martin; Aspray, William; Ensmenger, Nathan; Yost, Jeffrey R.: Computer. A history of the information machine, Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, 3rd edition 2016, xv, 360 pages
Ceruzzi, Paul E.: Computing. A concise history, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London 2012, xvi, 199 pages
Cortada, James W.: The digital flood. The diffusion of information technology across the U.S., Euro-pe and Asia, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York 2012, xix, 789 pages
Davis, Martin: The universal computer. The road from Leibniz to Turing, CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida, London etc. 2012, xiv, 224 pages
Goldstine, Herman Heine: The computer from Pascal to von Neumann, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey 1993, xii, 378 pages
Hellige, Hans Dieter (ed.): Geschichten der Informatik. Visionen, Paradigmen, Leitmotive, Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Heidelberg 2004, xii, 514 pages
Moreau, René: The computer comes of age. The people, the hardware, and the software, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts 1986, 226 pages
Naumann, Friedrich: Vom Abakus zum Internet. Die Geschichte der Informatik, Primus-Verlag, Darmstadt 2001, 287 pages
Randell, Brian (ed.): The origins of digital computers. Selected papers, Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Hei-delberg etc., 3rd edition 1982, xvi, 580 pages
Rojas, Raul (ed.): Encyclopedia of computers and computer history, Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, Chicago, London 2001, 2 volumes, xiii+xi, 930 pages
Taton, René: Histoire du calcul, Presses universitaires de France, Paris, 5th edition 1969, 128 pages
Turck, Joseph A. V.: Origin of modern calculating machines, The Western Society of Engineers, Chi-cago 1921, 196 pages
Williams, Michael Roy: A history of computing technology, IEEE Computer Society Press, Los Alamitos, California, 2nd edition 1997, xi, 426 pages
Zemanek, Heinz: Weltmacht Computer. Weltreich der Information, Bechtle Verlag, Esslingen, Mu-nich 1991, 528 pages

Herbert Bruderer is a retired lecturer in didactics of computer science at ETH Zurich. More recently, he has been an historian of technology. [email protected], herbert.bruderer@bluewin.