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The Five Generations of Computers

Learn about each of the five generations of computers and major technology developments that have led to the computing devices that we use today.

The history of development is a computer science topic that is often used to reference the different generations of computing .

Each one of the five generations of computers is characterized by a major technological development that fundamentally changed the way computers operate.

Most major developments from the 1940's to present day have resulted in increasingly smaller, cheaper, more powerful and more efficient computing devices.

What Are the Five Generations of Computers?

In this 顶盛体育直播 Study Guide, you'll learn more about each of the five generations of computers and the advances in technology that have led to the development of the many computing devices that we use today. Our journey of the five generations of computers starts in 1940 with vacuum tube circuitry and goes to the present day and beyond   with (AI) systems and devices.

Let's take a look...

Five Generations of Computers Checklist

顶盛体育直播 Study Guide Section Getting Started: Key Terms to Know
顶盛体育直播 Study Guide Section First Generation: Vacuum Tubes
顶盛体育直播 Study Guide Section Second Generation Transistors
顶盛体育直播 Study Guide Section Third Generation Integrated Circuits
顶盛体育直播 Study Guide Section Fourth Generation Microprocessors
顶盛体育直播 Study Guide Section Fifth Generation Artificial Intelligence

Getting Started: Key Terms to Know

The following technology definitions will help you to better understand the five generations of computing:

First Generation: Vacuum Tubes (1940-1956)

The first computer systems used vacuum tubes for circuitry and for , and were often enormous, taking up entire rooms. These computers were very expensive to operate and in addition to using a great deal of electricity, the first computers generated a lot of heat, which was often the cause of malfunctions.

First generation computers relied on , the lowest-level programming language understood by computers, to perform operations, and they could only solve one problem at a time. It would take operators days or even weeks to set-up a new problem. Input was based on punched cards and paper tape, and output was displayed on printouts.

The UNIVAC and computers are examples of first-generation computing devices. The UNIVAC was the first commercial computer delivered to a business client, the U.S. Census Bureau in 1951.

A UNIVAC computer at the Census Bureau
A UNIVAC computer at the Census Bureau.
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Second Generation: Transistors (1956-1963)

The world would see replace vacuum tubes in the second generation of computers. The transistor was invented at Bell Labs in 1947 but did not see widespread use in computers until the late 1950s. 

The transistor was far superior to the vacuum tube, allowing computers to become smaller, faster, cheaper, more energy-efficient and more reliable than their first-generation predecessors. Though the transistor still generated a great deal of heat that subjected the computer to damage, it was a vast improvement over the vacuum tube. Second-generation computers still relied on punched cards for input and printouts for output.

From Binary to Assembly

Second-generation computers moved from cryptic machine language to symbolic, or , languages, which allowed programmers to specify instructions in words. were also being developed at this time, such as early versions of and . These were also the first computers that stored their instructions in their memory, which moved from a magnetic drum to magnetic core technology.

The first computers of this generation were developed for the atomic energy industry.

An early transistor

An early Philco Transistor (1950's)
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Third Generation: Integrated Circuits (1964-1971)

The development of the was the hallmark of the third generation of computers. Transistors were miniaturized and placed on , called , which drastically increased the speed and efficiency of computers.

Instead of punched cards and printouts, users interacted with third generation computers through and and with an , which allowed the device to run many different at one time with a central program that monitored the memory. Computers for the first time became accessible to a mass audience because they were smaller and cheaper than their predecessors.

Did You Know... ? An is a small electronic device made out of a semiconductor material. The first integrated circuit was developed in the 1950s by Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments and Robert Noyce of Fairchild Semiconductor.

Fourth Generation:  Microprocessors (1971-Present)

The brought the fourth generation of computers, as thousands of integrated circuits were built onto a single silicon chip. What in the first generation filled an entire room could now fit in the palm of the hand. The Intel 4004 chip, developed in 1971, located all the components of the computer—from the and memory to input/output controls—on a single chip.

In 1981 introduced its first computer for the home user, and in 1984 introduced the Macintosh. Microprocessors also moved out of the realm of desktop computers and into many areas of life as more and more everyday products began to use microprocessors.

As these small computers became more powerful, they could be linked together to form networks, which eventually led to the development of the Internet. Fourth generation computers also saw the development of , the and devices.

The Intel 4004 chip

Intel's first microprocessor, the 4004, was conceived by Ted Hoff and Stanley Mazor.
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Fifth Generation: Artificial Intelligence (Present and Beyond)

Fifth generation computing devices, based on , are still in development, though there are some applications, such as , that are being used today. The use of and superconductors is helping to make artificial intelligence a reality.

and molecular and will radically change the face of computers in years to come. The goal of fifth-generation computing is to develop devices that respond to input and are capable of learning and self-organization.

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This article was last updated on February 01, 2019

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The Five Generations of Computers

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