The History of Computer Science for Kids

Bedtime History

What do you think about when you think of a computer?  Do you have a computer in your house or at your school?  What types of things do you do with it?  Have you ever wondered how it works?

There are many, many things you can do with a computer.  It can help you with homework, you can play games on it and you can easily find out information that you need, like where to order pizza. 

Computers are now so common in western countries that we sometimes take them for granted.  But computers weren’t always in homes and schools.  In fact not too long ago, people hadn’t even heard of computers. 

The first “computers” were ancient tools that were used to do addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Some early examples of this would be the ancient Chinese math device known as the abacus.  These older tools were in some way computers because they did what computers do: take information and turn it into logical operations.  Logical operations are instructions that someone gives a computer and it tells the computer what to do. Older tools still required humans to do things to make them work.  But modern computers use power and are able to be programmed to do things automatically. 

The first computer as we would think of one today was created in 1823 by a man named Charles Babbage in England.  Charles Babbage invented all the parts that are now used for a modern computer. He called the machine he was working on the “Difference Engine” but unfortunately he never finished it. 

Ten years later, another man named George Scheutz read about the “Difference Engine” and was excited about what Babbage had been working on. Together with his son Edvard, Scheutz began to work on a smaller version. Twenty years later, by 1853, the father and son had constructed a machine that could process 15-digit numbers and calculate fourth-order differences. This was very advanced programming for a machine at that time. 

Their machine won a gold medal at the Exhibition of Paris in 1855, and later they sold it to the Dudley Observatory in Albany, New York.  The Dudley Observatory later used it to calculate the path of the planet Mars.

One of the first business uses of a computer was by the Census Bureau in the United States.  It used punch-card equipment to count information for the 1890 census. A census is an official count of a group of people to get information about them.  It’s something governments do to learn more about people living in their country.

In 1911 the company who made that computer joined another company to start a brand new company.  In 1924, it became known as the International Business Machines or IBM.  It is still one of the largest and most famous computer companies in the world. 

The first computers were around the size of a large room. Isn’t it crazy to think a computer as small as the one in your phone that fits in your pocket used to be the size of a large room? 

The next changes came in the 1940s during World War II.  Alan Turing, a man who worked for the British military invented an electronic computer called Colossus. This machine was used to break codes used by the German army in World War II.  The Colossus computer was kept secret until long after the war ended, so Turing and others did not become famous for inventing this machine until later.

Computers in the 1950s, after the second world war had ended, were used for research on the design of wind tunnels and would do other different things, like generate random numbers or predict the weather.

By the 1950s, programmers were using languages to tell the computer what they wanted it to do.  At first this was written by hand and punched into cards and fed into the machines.  Later, computers were designed that could be typed on using keyboards.

As old fashioned as they were, these first electronic machines were quite useful in science and engineering. They were able to do math problems way faster than a human ever could. They were also used to guess who would win an election for president.  A machine called the UNIVAC predicted president Eisenhower would defeat his opponent in an election after only 7% of the votes were in.  The UNIVAC’s prediction was very close: it said Eisenhower would win 438 electoral votes, and he ended up with 442.

Computers continued to improve through the 1970s and 1980s.

Do you enjoy playing video games? The first two computers games made were called Asteroids and Lunar Lander. Have you heard of them? They were the start of a very popular hobby in America: playing video games.

Computers today can do all kinds of things.  They are literally a machine that takes what you put into it, and then gives you some information back. So you give it a command, just like you would give to your dog.  But instead of telling your computer what to do, you type into it or use a mouse or even talk to it.  And your computer follows the command to give you the result you want. These are pretty amazing machines when you think about it!

Computers today have something called a microprocessor that can do math very quickly. They also have a memory called RAM. This stores all the information you need when you’re not using it. They also have fans to keep them cool, otherwise they’ll get too hot.

People use computers every day at work, at school, and at home. Computers are used in factories to control how things are made and in offices to keep records. People also use computers for sending pictures and emails, researching information and all sorts of activities.

Computers and the things you can do with them continue to develop.  Just think about all of the changes that humans have seen to computers in the last 150 years.  We have gone from having no electric computers at all to having devices that we can carry around in our hands, called smart phones.  It is incredible when you think about the pace at which computers have changed and how they have impacted our lives.

None of the things you like to do on the internet or movies you watch and video games you play would be possible without computers. Without computers you wouldn’t be listening to this story! Computers are so amazing they seem like magic and we forget that someone had to design them. 

What’s really exciting is you can do this too. Kids of all ages have learned to design their own games and apps. This is called programming or coding. A free website to start learning to design your own games is called Scratch. It makes it very easy for kids to get started. Go to scratch.mit.edu to try it out. Some school and libraries have “code clubs” where kids learn how to program computers. If you’re interested in how your library can have a code club, too, a good friend of mine designed a way to make that happen. Visit prenda.co (spell out) to learn more about how your school or library can have its own code club. 

What would you do if you could design a computer to do whatever you wanted? Would you design a game or a cool app? The possibilities are truly endless.

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