We live in a golden age of computing – everything from our toothbrushes to our cars have tiny CPUs inside them. The first computers were underpowered by today’s standards. Today, your average iPhone has much more processing capability and RAM than the first PCs that used to inhabit entire floors of buildings. But how did this revolutionary change come about? In this three-part series, we’ll be taking a look at the hardware that made the PC revolution possible and what implications these technologies have for us currently.
The items in this list run in a particular order. We’ll be looking at the top 9 hardware innovations that have given rise to modern computing. That being said, let’s start with number nine on our countdown.
9. Solid-State Drives
If you can imagine a world without solid state drives, you live in a very old-mindset. Today, these platter-less wonders have made their way into everything. As I type this, my PC is transferring files from my computer to a flash drive – a form of solid-state memory. The digital camera I picked up this morning employs a proprietary memory card technology – also solid-state. My iPhone relies on a 16 Gb internal solid-state drive to store all my music, games and files.
Everywhere you look, solid-state drives have made a difference in our lives. This amazing new technology is what is going to allow us to finally move away from computers that are so dominated by heat-sinks and fans.
A solid-state drive is fundamentally different from a hard drive in the sense that there are no moving pieces to a solid-state drive. A hard drive disk relies on platters spinning at extremely high RPMs to read and write on. A solid-state drive stores data inside a capacitor inside a circuit. This type of memory, otherwise known as volatile DRAM, is extremely simple to understand. Each bit of memory (not byte, but rather, bit) is stored inside a transistor-capacitor system, therefore, billions or even trillions of these small circuits can be stacked to create the drive. However, DRAM has one major problem, it can’t retain memory if it isn’t powered.
Conventionally today, most Flash Drives and Memory Cards use NAND flash, which is very different from the DRAM. The NAND architecture is all based on voltage differences between transistors connected in series. The chip inside is rather complicated, but suffice it to say that this type of memory is able to retain information long after you’ve unplugged the drive from the computer.
This technology is currently being re-analyzed to be used as a form of perma-RAM. To that end, your PC would no longer have to actually “boot” in the traditional sense. The persistent RAM would be able to store your active memory in the computer after you’ve turned it off. This would effectively turn your PC into an instant-on machine.
The QWERTY keyboard is not technically a computer innovation, but the extra buttons and commands that came along with it did turn the keyboard into something of a juggernaut.
The standard keyboard has become something of a well-known staple in modern society. Employers expect you to be able to type out emails and a certain amount of words-per-minute, social networking sites allow you to input information into them using the keyboard, and carpal tunnel syndrome has become a much more common malady today than ever.
If you’ve ever wondered why the keyboard has the odd arrangement of letters and symbols that it does, you can blame it on the typewriter. Initially, the typewriter came equipped with an ABCDE keyboard, or one that had the alphabet in order rather than jumbled the way it is currently. However, typists were so fast with this kind of keyboard, that the typewriters couldn’t handle the speed. To slow down the writers, the industry decided to invest in a type of system that grouped commonly used letters together and kept the others at a distance to make it more difficult for the typists to write so quickly.
The keyboard and its many F commands have become a staple to the modern PC user. Command-line interfaces and DOS rely almost entirely on keyboards for command inputs and most of the work we do daily on a computer revolves around the keyboard. Together with the word processor, the computer keyboard was ultimately responsible for bringing down the type-writing industry.
Why is the mouse more important than the keyboard? The idea for the mouse was a much more novel one than for the keyboard which had already existed in a pre-computing era.
The necessity for a mouse came out of the military need for a pointing device in new graphical interfaces (GUI) used to helm complex programs that were easier to use without the need for typing in sophisticated commands. The first mouse was a hulking beast of a machine, with individual rotators for both the X and Y axes.
The design was later refined in the late 70s and early 80s into the prototype “ball mouse” that anyone over the age of 16 has used at least once in their lives. The ball mouse fixed the initial problem of navigation with two hands. Rather, it positioned a free-moving ball inside the mouse and allowed it to rotate the two gears representing the X axis and the Y axis. But the ball mouse would eventually become far less practical than the modern optical or laser mouse.
Modern mice are something to marvel at. Wireless, rechargeable, and navigating by laser, they might’ve been a pipe dream back in the early days. The mouse today is used in every computer made. Whether you like Macs, PCs, or Linux Machines, you’re going to use a mouse either way. In this way, the mouse single-handedly pioneered the GUI. Without a practical pointing device, there’s no way the interface would’ve ever come about.
Continue reading our analysis of the most important hardware innovations ever with a look at the next three spots on the list.