Transcript Edit

Text reads: The Mysteries of Life with Tim and Moby

Tim and Moby are walking through a museum. They come across an antique adding machine in a glass display case.

TIM: Hey, what's your grandma doing here?

MOBY: Beep.

Moby frowns at Tim.

TIM: Heh…little joke…grandma.

MOBY: Beep.

Tim reads from a typed letter.

TIM: Dear Tim and Moby, I would like to know about the history of computers. Thank you, Surina. Hey there. You might be surprised at how far back the history of computers goes! It starts thousands of years ago, with the invention of the first devices for storing numbers.

An animation shows a cave woman using a stick to draw a line in the dirt.

TIM: Er, we don't need to go THAT far back.

An animation shows an ancient Sumerian using an abacus.

TIM: That's better. People have used mechanical calculators like the abacus since ancient times. Greek astronomers took it a step further, with precision instruments that tracked the stars.

A split screen shows an image of an ancient astronomer turning a dial on a complex metal machine, and an image of an ancient sailor consulting an astrolabe on a ship’s deck.

TIM: These devices are the distant ancestors of the central processing unit, the heart…er, brain of the modern computer.

An image of an evolutionary tree appears. It has a central processing unit at the top, and an astrolabe and an abacus at its roots. The central processing unit takes its place inside a smart phone. Flashes of light move across the CPU's surface.

TIM: A CPU can perform millions of calculations per second. So how did we get from there to here?

A question mark appears in the middle of the evolutionary tree.

MOBY: Beep.

TIM: Well sure, electricity was important. But the modern computing age began with mechanical devices built by a nineteenth century British mathematician named Charles Babbage.

An image shows Charles Babbage standing in front of one of his computers. It is a large metal device with many gears.

TIM: Babbage's machines used gears to store numbers and do complex math. He designed one that could read punch cards to do different calculations.

An image shows the blueprint for Babbage's machine appear.

TIM: In other words, he made it programmable. His colleague, Ada Lovelace, demonstrated that with the world's first computer programs!

An image of Ada Lovelace holding a set of punch cards appears in front of the blueprint.

TIM: Decades later, American inventor Herman Hollerith built a computer to help count the 1890 census.

An image shows Herman Hollerith next to his tabulating machine. It is a large wooden device with dials on its face.

TIM: Like Babbage’s machines, it used punch cards and gears, but it was driven by electricity.

Hollerith feeds a card into the machine. The dials on the machine click forward one notch.

TIM: Businesses used Hollerith's machine to track all sorts of stuff, and his company grew into the biggest computer maker in the world: IBM!

An animation shows a car pulling up to a 1920s storefront. The sign above the door reads, The International Business Machines Company, Ltd.

TIM: The problem was, these early computers all had to be custom-built.

MOBY: Beep.

TIM: Well, like you couldn’t program a census machine to keep track of train schedules. That began to change 50 years later, as European nations and America prepared for World War 2.

An image of a World War 2 Army recruiting poster appears, featuring Uncle Sam pointing. The text underneath him reads "I Want You for U.S. Army."

TIM: High-powered machines were needed for all kinds of jobs, from weapons targeting to decoding secret messages.

An image shows soldiers standing beside a World War 2 cannon, while a spy holds an envelope marked, Top Secret.

TIM: So governments raced to build a whole new generation of computers. Instead of gears, these machines used electricity to represent numbers and operations.

MOBY: Beep?

TIM: Well, the simplest way is with an electric switch: On means “1," and off means "0."

An animations shows a vacuum tube hooked up to a battery. The tube switches on and the number 1 appears above it. Then it switches off, and a 0 appears above it.

TIM: Strings of 1s and 0s, or binary code, can represent words, numbers, and even sounds and images! For example, here's one way to represent, Tim, in binary.

The animation shows the tube quickly blinking on and off, generating three eight-number sequences of 1s and 0s. These sequences appear at the top of the screen. The first sequence of 1s and 0s corresponds to the letter T, the second sequence corresponds to the letter I, and the third corresponds to the letter M.

TIM: Electricity could also be amplified, or boosted, to represent different math operations.

An animation shows four glowing tubes. Each one glows slightly brighter than the one to its left. A plus sign, minus sign, multiplication sign, and division sign appear above the different tubes.

TIM: Now imagine thousands of switches and amplifiers all hooked up together.

MOBY: Beep.

TIM: Yup, then you could perform super complex calculations, and way faster than any mechanical device. During World War 2, Britain's Colossus relied on 2,000 switches and amplifiers to decode enemy messages. America's ENIAC had almost ten times that, allowing it to run 5,000 calculations per second!

An animation shows the Colossus. It fills an entire wall, and a woman tends to its tubes and switches as sequences of 1s and 0s appear in the background. Then, ENIAC appears. The huge computer fills the entire room as four women work on it.

MOBY: Beep.

TIM: Yup, by today's standards, these room-sized machines are pretty clunky. But their use of electric switches was revolutionary. The biggest advances since then have really just been refinements of that basic design. First, the transistor was invented shortly after the war. A transistor is a switch that's smaller, faster, and more reliable than the glass tubes from before.

An image shows a transistor next to a much larger vacuum tube. The transistor looks like a small chunk of metal on top of three pins.

TIM: Next, microprocessors put many transistors onto a single chip.

An image shows a microprocessor appears. It looks like a black, rectangular wafer with pins sticking out from its edges.

TIM: The number of transistors that could fit grew every year.

The number of pins doubles. ENIAC and Colossus appear above it, emphasizing just how small the microprocessor is.

TIM: By the late 1960s, one tiny processor could do the work of Colossus and ENIAC combined! Still, computers weren't something the average person ever used. They were for the same people who'd been using them since the nineteenth century: government agencies, businesses, and researchers.

An image shows a 1960s office appears. Two men in suits stand next to a computer operator. She is working on a large machine that spits out long sheets of paper.

TIM: Then in the 1970s, two guys from California set out to bring computers to the masses. Their names were Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Working out of Jobs's garage, they completed the Apple 1 in 1976.

An image shows Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak with the Apple 1 computer. Its case is made out of wood, and it looks like a large typewriter.

TIM: It let users see what they were doing on a TV screen, when most computers didn't have screens at all. Anyone could start it up, and it had a drive that let you save and load all sorts of different programs. An improved version, the Apple 2, sold millions of units.

An image of the Apple 2 computer appears. It has two floppy disk drives and a monitor. It looks similar to a modern desktop computer.

TIM: By the early 80s, other companies were getting into the act, and the home computer market was booming! Software from games to word processors gave everyone in the family something to do.

An image shows a child playing a video game on a PC. On another computer, an adult studies a monthly report.

TIM: As the Internet grew more popular in the 1990s, email and websites made the machines even more useful. So did touchscreens, which let you control your device with simple gestures.

An image shows Brainpop's Mars movie on a tablet computer. Tim swipes his finger across the screen, causing it to scroll.

MOBY: Beep.

TIM: Yep, these days there are little computers in every room of the house!

An image shows a jumble of gadgets, including a microwave oven, a coffee machine, a flat screen TV, a thermostat, a video camera, a remote control, and a video game console.

TIM: Today's processors cram millions of transistors onto a single chip.

An image of a modern microprocessor appears. It is a shiny metal square.

TIM: Chances are, your phone is a computer that's way more powerful than one of those machines from the 1980s.

Tim appears on a smart phone screen in Moby's hand. Tim speaks from inside the phone, and presses his hands up against the inside of the phone's display.

TIM: Hey, what are you doing?! Let me out of here!

Moby places the smart phone on an empty museum pedestal and walks away. The lights turn off in the museum, making the phone the only source of light.

TIM: Moby? Come on now, joke's over. I...I'm sorry about that grandma crack.