How Computers Work: Part 1

A lot of people in the world are curious about how computers work and would like to know more about the evolution of these machines in our modern society. I have no idea if any of these people actually visit my web site, but I’ve never been one to worry about such issues. This is just another example of something I let the marketing department worry about. (Note to self: Check to see if I have created a marketing department yet).

I’ve decided to adopt a more traditional approach to the method of delivery for this information. While most everyone wants to jump right into the “fun” stuff like receiving AOL for free, getting the 250 dollar Neiman Marcus chocolate chip cookie recipe, and finding out how to get paid thousands of dollars a month for surfing the Internet, I am taking the approach of “starting from the beginning”. This will guarantee that any interest in the topic will be exhausted on largely irrelevant background information. This is the exact model used by my high school English department. I don’t really know why beginnings aren’t as exciting as the middle or the end, but I will do what I can to make the beginning as fun as the rest of the story.

Stay tuned for the EXCITING BEGINNING of the story!!!

The first computer ever used by mankind was small enough to fit inside a human nose. Surprisingly enough, this computer’s exterior dimensions are remarkably similar to the interior of the aforementioned orifice. I’m referring to, of course, one of the most common human appendages to be inserted in the nasal cavity-the finger. The twenty or so digits found on the hands and feet of an average person can be used for counting and keeping track of relatively small positive integers. Some notable exceptions include James Doohan (“Scotty” from the original Star Trek series) who can only go up to nineteen after losing a finger in World War II, and Marilyn Monroe who could, according to some sources, count up to twenty-one with the help of an extra toe on her left foot.

While not the most powerful of computers, fingers are still the most widely used computational machine in the world today. In addition to being quite user friendly and durable, fingers are located very conveniently at the ends of our hands and, if maintained properly, are pleasing to the eye and include a soft tactile sensation. Sure, you can’t very well set up a Linux e-mail server or load Microsoft office on your fingers, but fingers can’t be beat for elegance and simplicity.

It didn’t take long before people found a need to keep track of numbers bigger than twenty. The next logical step was to use small rocks to account for possessions. For example, if you were one of the first humans to domesticate livestock, you could have a pile of stones that represented how many live chickens you owned at the moment. When a new chick was born, you would add a stone to the pile. When a chicken was taken away, you would pick up a stone and throw it at your lousy neighbor who most likely stole it when you walked back to the cave for an afternoon nap.

One of the oldest examples of this technique can be found in the Middle East. After learning of this new system for counting things, an ancient Egyptian commanded a high ranking official to use this procedure to keep track of how many people lived in the Nile Valley. In an attempt to please the Pharaoh, the largest possible stones were cut into precise shapes and carefully piled on top of each other. After seeing the massive scale of the pyramid, the Pharaoh called the officer into a meeting at the royal chamber. The bulk of the meeting consisted of the Pharaoh pulling out his gold and blue striped question mark shaped stick and using it to attack the officer in a series of short but solid smacks to the head. The meeting ended with the Pharaoh deciding to use it as his final resting place to avoid ridicule from the rest of the known world.

While this information may not seem terribly useful, at this stage it is best to take a holistic view of the world. Everything in the universe has its place and is related to everything else is some way. While I like to ask questions such as “What do they put in Chicken McNuggets?” and “What happened to Marilyn Monroe’s extra toe?”, I am quite confident that eventually I’ll find the answers. The trick is realizing that all of the questions and answers aren’t all lined up all the time. Having said that, I hope everyone joins in next time when the revolutionary concept of the abacus explored in excessive and possibly historically inaccurate detail.