A complete history of computing would include a multitude of diverse devices such as the ancient Chinese abacus, the Jacquard Loom (1805) and Charles Babbage’s “analytical engine” (1834). It would also include discussion of mechanical, analog and digital computing architectures. As late as the 1960s, mechanical devices, such as the Marchant calculator, still found widespread application in science and engineering.
Charles Babbage (Inventor Of computer)
During the early days of electronic computing devices, there was much discussion about the relative merits of analog vs. digital computers. In fact, as late as the 1960s, analog computers were routinely used to solve systems of finite difference equations arising in oil reservoir modeling. In the end, digital computing devices proved to have the power, economics and scalability necessary to deal with large scale computations.
Digital computers now dominate the computing world in all areas ranging from the hand calculator to the supercomputer and are pervasive throughout society. Therefore, this brief sketch of the development of scientific computing is limited to the area of digital, electronic computers.
The evolution of digital computing is often divided into generations. Each generation is characterized by dramatic improvements over the previous generation in the technology used to build computers, the internal organization of computer systems, and programming languages. Although not usually associated with computer generations, there has been a steady improvement in algorithms, including algorithms used in computational science. The following history has been organized using these widely recognized generations as mileposts.