What Is A Computer?

Computers have changed the world and are widely used today in most countries, organizations and industries.

What started as a humble development of technology has evolved into perhaps the most important spectrum of equipment that modern society relies on in the 21st century and it has all happened rather rapidly. 

Computer definition

Strictly speaking, a computer is an electrical device that is used to store, process and output data from a range of inputs from the user. 

Today, these inputs come from peripheral devices such as keyboards, mice, webcams, gaming controllers, touchpads and much more. The outputs include physical printouts, audio and most commonly among modern computers, visuals via a screen.

Computer systems can generally be split into hardware and software. Hardware is the physical equipment that forms the machine and the software is the range of programs that process data and display outputs. 

This wasn’t always the case however, so let’s take a brief walk down memory lane and recap the history of computing technology. 

History of Computers 

While computer technology was theorized by scholars and philosophers up to 200 years ago, nothing tangible emerged until the 1800s.

In 1821, a system was developed by a British mathematician called Charles Babbage through a steam-powered machine that could complete calculations. This rather advanced device for the era would go on to become the basis for early computers. 

It wasn’t until the 1930s when things progressed from here. In 1931, Vannevar Bush invented a machine known as the Differential Analyzer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to solve equations using a wheel and disc mechanical system.

In 1936, a British scientist and mathematician called Alan Turing conceptualized what is often referred to as the ‘Turing machine’, the basis for modern computers. In 1937, physics professor John Vincent Atanasoff at Iowa State puts forward a proposal for the first electric computer that does not use mechanical systems. 

From here, much development took place over the coming decades to take computers from enormous, clunky calculation devices to smaller, more efficient electrical machines that eventually made their way into homes, schools, offices and even our pockets and wrists.

Innovators like Bill Gates who started Microsoft or Steve Jobs who co-founded Apple have shaped the way that these devices are used around the world today. 

Types of Computer Hardware

Computers are defined by their ability to take an input, process data and produce an output. That being said, let’s take a look at the different types of computer available today that are most commonly used. 

  • Personal computer (PC): A PC is a desktop computer housed in a compact casing often placed within a classroom, home or office. They rely on additional peripheral hardware to be functional such as a mouse, keyboard and monitor. 
  • Laptop: Laptops are an evolution of the PC, putting the computer and the peripherals into an all-in-on, portable system. They come with a built-in keyboard, touchpad to operate the mouse and screen to display visual outputs. 
  • Server: A server is a network of connected computer systems that connect individual devices, or clients, to a centrally housed hardware system to process data and communicate with other devices. This approach has become vital for business and education and is used in almost every sector. 
  • Supercomputer: a supercomputer is a computer system with an extremely high capability for performance, compared to consumer facing equipment. They are often used by data analysts, governments and businesses. 
  • Mobile computer: A computer device that is small enough to be portable and can be used without the input of keyboard or mouse. Tablet computers, smartphones and mobile gaming devices are all examples of a mobile computer device. 
  • Wearable computer: Probably the most recent consumer innovation is the wearable computer. This can be presented as a computerized wristwatch or smart glasses that provide visual overlays.

Types of Computer Software

As previously mentioned, computer software is encoded programs that do not have a material form and instead operate from within the system memory to execute commands, process inputs and display outputs. There are many different types of software, so let’s look at the fundamental variations used today.

Operating System (OS)

Arguably the most important form of software, an OS is the graphical interface through which the user operates the computer. Examples include Microsoft Windows, macOS, Linux, Android and iOS. 

Application software

These are installable or preloaded package programs that perform a given function or fulfill a utility purpose. They can be used to create art or music, produce written content, program other pieces of software, provide education or play games. Examples include Microsoft Office, Internet browsers, Image editing suites like Photoshop and much more. 

Software is designed and run using a programming language such as C++, Java or Python that operates mostly behind the scenes to make the software work. This is represented as strings of code that convey commands and inputs to the hardware. 

What are Computers used for?

So computers have come an incredibly long way since their humble beginnings as glorified, hulking calculators but what are they used for today? 

Well, essentially everything. One important field that computers are used in is education, through research via the internet and interactive learning activities.

They are also used in business to process data and facilitate client or customer requests. In medicine, they can store patient records and diagnose conditions, even assisting with complex operations. 

From a consumer point of view, computers are largely used for entertainment purposes today. Whether it is playing games, watching video content, reading eBooks or interacting with friends and family, there is plenty of fun to be had with computer technology. 

Related: What Is Information Technology?

Conclusion

Today, you will find computers in schools, offices and homes around the world, being used for a wide variety of purposes. Much of modern society relies on the processing power of computer systems and connectivity they facilitate through the internet. 

Despite bringing about both positive and negative change in the world, computers are here to stay and are still advancing at a rapid rate, making their way onto our bodies through wearables and in the creation of virtual worlds for us to inhabit through virtual reality systems. 

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