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Computers in the 1950s: The Dawn of the Information Age

My friend, if you‘re fascinated by technology, you‘ll love learning about the dramatic changes that happened in computing during the 1950s. In just one decade, computers evolved from rare, enormous machines accessible only to a handful of scientists and corporations to smaller commercial products that began finding a place in the mainstream business world.

The 1950s truly marked the dawn of the information age, as postwar advancement in electronics and information theory coalesced into a flurry of technological progress that gave birth to the computer industry.

So let‘s explore the key events and innovations that defined computing in this remarkable decade! Along the way, you‘ll discover how the earliest computers crunched numbers, stored data, and networked our world – ultimately paving the way for the personal computing revolution to come.

The Emergence of Commercial Computers

By 1951, there were only about a dozen computers in the entire United States. These room-sized machines were built by universities and government agencies for specialized military and scientific projects during World War II. But in the postwar years, companies began to see business applications for computer technology.

The world‘s first commercially available general-purpose electronic computer was the UNIVAC I, built by Remington Rand. After debuting in 1951, this behemoth sold 45 units to government agencies and businesses at over $1 million per installation. Talk about an expensive machine!

Remington Rand‘s work inspired other companies to enter the new computer market:

  • IBM unveiled its 701 model in 1953, selling 19 units at over $2 million each.

  • Burroughs, National Cash Register, and other business machine companies followed with their own computers priced from $500,000 to $1 million.

By the end of the decade, over 200 computers from 50 different vendors were installed across America. The 1950s saw computing power migrate from government and academic labs into the business world – driving rapid innovation.

The Transistor Revolution

In 1947, three scientists at Bell Telephone Laboratories invented a device that would transform electronics: the transistor. This tiny component could amplify and switch electric signals like a vacuum tube but was far smaller, faster and more reliable.

Throughout the 1950s, transistors rapidly replaced tubes in computer designs, enabling amazing miniaturization. The UNIVAC I filled a room with 18,000 tubes! But the 1958 Philco TRANSAC S-1000 packed the same computing power into a console with just 5,000 transistors – demonstrating the transistor‘s vast superiority.

Specification UNIVAC I (1951) Philco TRANSAC S-1000 (1958)
Technology Vacuum tubes Transistors
Transistor count 0 5,000
Size Room-sized Console

This transition from tubes to transistors drove exponential improvements in computing performance while reducing costs. By 1960, transistor prices had dropped low enough to make affordable personal computers economically feasible – something we‘ll see come to fruition in the next decade!

New Storage Media Unlocks Potential

Early computers of the 1940s used delay line memory – storing bits as sound pulses circulating in columns of mercury. By the 1950s scientists were exploring better solutions. Two major innovations transformed data storage:

Magnetic Tape

  • Invented by Fritz Pfleumer in 1928, tape recording was applied to data storage in 1951 when the UNIVAC I used it as an external memory device.
  • Polyester-based magnetic tape could hold vastly more information than earlier media and was far faster than punch cards or paper tape.
  • By 1956, IBM‘s 305 RAMAC computer used tape drives for business data storage needs.

Magnetic Core Memory

  • Patented by MIT‘s Jay Forrester in 1951, core memory used tiny magnetized ferrite rings to store bits.
  • Cores retained data even when power was off and were much faster than delay lines or tape.
  • Magnetic core became the predominant working memory technology for computers from 1955 until RAM chips replaced it in the 1970s.
Delay line Tape drive Core memory
Year invented 1940s 1951 1951
Access time Milliseconds Seconds Microseconds
Cost per bit High Low Moderate

This magnetic storage revolution enabled computers to work with far greater quantities of data, driving innovation in software and applications.

Programming Languages Enable Software Growth

In the early 1950s, computer programs had to be written in cryptic binary machine code – an arduous process. This began to change in the mid-50s as scientists developed higher-level programming languages to make software development more practical.

  • FORTRAN, created by IBM in 1954, quickly became the most widely used language for scientific computing.
  • COBOL emerged in 1959 as the first standardized business computing language.
  • LISP, developed in 1958 by John McCarthy, was an early artificial intelligence language focused on symbolic processing.

These new languages spurred the growth of computer programming as a profession. They enabled complex applications to be built efficiently by abstracting away tedious hardware details. The number of computer programmers doubled from just over 5000 in 1955 to well over 10000 by 1960.

Advancements like programming languages, operating systems, compilers, databases and other software tools created the bedrock upon which modern computing would be built in the coming decades.

Influential Early Computer Systems

Many pioneering computer systems that changed history emerged from university labs in the 1950s:

  • EDSAC (1949) – One of the first practical stored-program computers, built at Cambridge University.

  • Whirlwind (1951) – Developed at MIT for the US Air Force, it was the first real-time computer and introduced video displays.

  • Johnniac (1953) – Built at RAND Corporation, it was one of the first computers used for artificial intelligence research.

  • TX-0 (1956) – An early transistorized computer at MIT, introducing core memory and interactive programming.

But companies also produced groundbreaking commercial systems:

  • UNIVAC I (1951) – Designed by Eckert and Mauchly, it made headlines by predicting Eisenhower‘s presidential election victory.

  • IBM 701 (1953) – IBM‘s first large-scale electronic computer helped the company dominate the early computing market.

  • Bendix G-15 (1956) – This compact, affordable computer was designed for scientists and engineers.

  • LGP-30 (1956) – An early desktop computer used for simple data processing, it sold over 400 units.

Here‘s a chart comparing some key specs of influential 1950s systems:

Computer Year Technology Memory type Processor speed
EDSAC 1949 Vacuum tubes Mercury delay lines 500 Hz
UNIVAC I 1951 Vacuum tubes Magnetic tape 2.25 kHz
IBM 701 1952 Vacuum tubes Magnetic drums 12 kHz
TX-0 1956 Transistors Magnetic cores 64 kHz
Bendix G-15 1956 Vacuum tubes + transistors Magnetic drums 83 kHz

You can see the rapid advances in underlying technology that took place over just a few years!

The Computer Industry Matures

Several companies that formed the backbone of the computer industry trace their roots to the 1950s:

  • IBM quickly became the 800-pound gorilla of the industry after entering computing with its 701 model in 1953.

  • Sperry Rand was created from 1955 merger of Remington Rand and Sperry Gyroscope – bringing together the UNIVAC computer with Sperry‘s electronics expertise.

  • Honeywell formed in 1955 from the merger of Minneapolis-Honeywell and Raytheon Electronics to produce computers alongside avionics equipment.

  • Burroughs, NCR, RCA, and others also established major computing divisions during the 1950s.

By the end of the decade, over 50 vendors produced electronic computers, concentrated around technology hubs like Boston, Philadelphia, and the San Francisco Bay Area. It was an industry just starting to come into its own.

The Road to Artificial Intelligence

The breathtaking pace of advancement in computing technology fueled visions of intelligent machines. Mathematician Alan Turing proposed the Turing test in 1950 to define artificial intelligence – whether a computer could mimic human conversation.

The 1956 Dartmouth Conference organized by AI pioneer John McCarthy brought together computer scientists to focus research on neural networks, machine learning, and other facets of artificial intelligence.

While true AI was still decades away, the groundwork was laid in the 1950s by theorists imagining a future where computers could replicate and exceed human reasoning and creativity. The seeds of today‘s AI were planted in this pioneering decade.

A Decade of Computing Milestones

When the 1950s began, computers were exotic tools restricted to government and specialized research. But by 1960, these "giant brains" were firmly established as productive commercial machines, processing data for business, science, and defense.

Looking back, we can see how revolutionary the 1950s were for computing technology. Crucial innovations like magnetic storage, transistors, programming languages, and interactive time-sharing propelled computers firmly into the mainstream. Everything from numerical analysis to payroll processing to air defense systems relied on this emerging technology.

The computer industry grew from a handful of government and corporate labs to a vibrant ecosystem of vendors selling these wondrous new machines. The 1950s marked nothing less than the dawn of the information age – where data would redefine how organizations function and knowledge fuels innovation. The computer revolution had begun in earnest!

I hope you‘ve enjoyed exploring this remarkable decade. Let me know if you have any other questions about the brilliant people, groundbreaking inventions, and visionary ideas that established computing as a transformative technology in the 1950s!