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Computers and data

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Professional organizations, institutions and businesses have been using computers to process data and provide information for many years. Over time, computers and computer systems have been growing in both sophistication and complexity, but their basic characteristics remain the same.

Simply put, computer systems combine several ingredients: hardware, software and users (people). Each is necessary for the system to function.

The electronic computer was introduced to the Canadian business community and the world in the 1960s. Its adoption into society was gradual because early models were expensive to purchase and maintain, slow to perform, and very little expertise was available. Twenty-five years ago, only about 10% of staff and students at a typical university were using computers—today the figure is close to 100%. Furthermore, commercial computing skills were not taught at university, and business software applications could not be bought—they had to be developed in-house by programming staff. However, skilled programmers were scarce and expensive.

We often refer to the 'generations' of computing history.

  • First generation computers (1940 to 1950) were based mostly on wired circuits of vacuum tubes and punched cards were the main storage medium.
  • Second generation computers (1950 to 1964) used transistors. The inefficient vacuum tube was replaced with a much smaller and more reliable component.
  • Third generation computers (1964 to 1972) used integrated circuits. This invention led to the widespread use of computers today. Scientists found a way to reduce the size of transistors, enabling computer manufacturers to build smaller and less costly computers.
  • Fourth generation computers (1972 to present) use microprocessor chips, which are large-scale integrated circuits containing thousands of transistors. The transistors on a microprocessor chip are capable of performing all of the functions of a computer's central processing unit. The microprocessor led to the creation of the first personal computer.