From the beginning of time, man realised that he needed to take stock of his possessions in order to make informed decisions and be in control of his environment. His possessions were not many, a few goats or sheep, a dog, two spears and an axe, maybe a few wives and an increasing number of children. Now the only computing equipment at his disposal then was his ten fingers and ten toes, but the word ten, or one, did not exist in his vocabulary. He would allocate one finger to each goat, one to each rabbit he caught, and so on. Now, the fingers and toes allocated to the rabbits and goats were easy to deal with but had their own problems because it was difficult to remember which fingers or toes had been used to represent something, and which ones were still unallocated.
And as the number of goats increased beyond his ten fingers and his ten toes, he found himself in a serious computational dilemma. Computer people today call this an overflow - memory size exceeded. Our resourceful ancient ancestor quickly found a way around this problem by resorting to the use of sticks and stones to extend the capacity of his computing system. That turned out to be a stroke of genius because that is when rules governing addition and subtraction of digits became clearly defined. When a new goat is born, put one more stone to the pile of stones, when a new lamb is born, put one more stick to the pile of sticks. When the ancestor, or a jackal, ate one sheep he removed one stick; and when he decided to eat all his goats, he would throw away all his stones after eating, not before, to avoid confusion. Nothing could be more elegant. Much later, mathematicians discovered that they could also use this process and called it addition and subtraction.
These sticks and stones form the building blocks of a computer as we know it today. The same sticks and stones that our ancestors used several thousands of years ago are still there, miniaturised and disguised as integrated circuits, inside the modern computer. Our ancient man, who used to shuffle his sticks and stones as he carried out his calculations, is also still there inside the modern computer, reduced to some operating system and application software.
So really, nothing much has changed since the beginning of time, except of course the fact that whereas the sticks and stones technology was available for free, modern technology, like everything else, is not so free. My next few articles will trace the stages in computer technology development from the Stone Age to the present.
Meanwhile, you can visit this Home and Office Technology Shop to see what the present holds for you.
I am a freelance software developer living in Melbourne, Australia
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