Key Points:

  • Over half a century ago, computers were the exclusive preserve of a certain target audience capable of affording them.
  • Standards Eastern Automatic Computer introduced at the very start of the decade was America’s first operational stored-program computer.
  • Also introduced in the same year, the ERA 1101 was one of the very first to be produced commercially, It was also one of the earliest devices to use magnetic storage.

70 years ago, computers were a long way off from what they would eventually become today. In the 1950s, computers might as well have been incredibly expensive calculators. However, this isn’t to say that there was no innovation to be found in the decade. Throughout the 1950s, computers were primarily sold from one business to another. Advertisements showed off the technical advancements of the technology — things like facts, features, design, speed, storage, and more. These 1950s computers could afford to cater to this highly specific target audience with their ads because, oftentimes, they were the only ones who could even afford the price of these advancements in technology in the first place.

On the other hand, though, this business-to-business sales model put the latest technology directly into the hands of those who knew how to make advancements to early computers and bring them closer to the devices we know and use today. The following facts on early computers in the 1950s — including facts on their features, design, speed, storage, and price — will help make it clear exactly the course innovation took throughout the 1950s and toward the 1960s.

1950s computer
This massive computer setup gives us an idea of what computers were like in the 1950s. We’ve come a long way!

1950

Introduction of the US NBS

In April of 1950, the Standards Eastern Automatic Computer (SEAC) put on a demonstration showing off their newest product: the US NBS. It was the very first operational stored-program computer in the country. 

The Pilot ACE Computer Becomes Functional

The following month, May 1950, the Pilot ACE came to life at the National Physical Laboratory. With 800 vacuum tubes and a series of mercury delay lines linked to the computer’s main memory, the Pilot ACE was effectively a trial run for Alan Turing’s ACE proper.

Demonstration of the SWAC

In August of that same year, the Standards Western Automatic Computer was shown off at UCLA. Its design and its speed were unmatched at the time, thanks in large part to its 2,300 vacuum tubes. 

The Turing Test Debuts

In October, Alan Turing — a British pioneer of mathematics and computing — published the Turing test: a series of evaluations meant to test a computer’s ability to demonstrate human intelligence. It effectively established itself as the guiding principle of artificial intelligence research. 

Introduction of the ERA 1101

The ERA 1101 was one of the very first computers to be produced commercially, and the US Navy was one of their very first customers. As one of the earliest devices to utilize magnetic storage, the 1101’s design and features were often mimicked or reused by ERA and competing companies alike.

Elsie

Neurophysiologist Grey Walter built a robot named Elsie in 1950 — it could avoid both strong light and extreme darkness by seeking out photoelectric cells in its path.

1951

The UNIVAC Impresses

The very first commercially successful general-purpose computer, the UNIVAC, made its public debut in March of 1951. Capable of handling numeric and textual information alike, many consider the UNIVAC to be the official start of the computer era.

Whirlwind Makes its Debut

In April of 1951, MIT’s US Air Defense Team released the Whirlwind: the first device that allowed for interactive computing via a keyboard and cathode ray tube (CRT). The computer worked in real-time, which was practically unheard of at this point in computer history.

Introduction of LEO-1

To combat problems with scheduling and delivery within their cake production business, the Lyons Tea Company commissioned England’s very first commercial computer: the LEO. Designed as a data processing system, the LEO-1 was a major development in the world of commercial computing.

Release of the Ferranti Mark 1

The Ferranti Mark 1 — a commercial take on the Manchester Mark 1 — was released to the public in 1951, complete with the kind of programming language that allowed for things like the creation of original music.

Magnetic Tape Arrives

The release of the EDVAC (electronic discrete variable computer) saw the arrival of magnetic tape in computing. The EDVAC allowed for new programs to be loaded onto the device using the tape. 

1952

The IBM 701 is Introduced

First shown in April 1952, the IBM 701 was a large-scale machine that could perform all sorts of scientific, commercial, and electronic purposes. It is widely considered the first commercial scientific computer.

Completion of the IAS Machine

In June of 1952, Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study completed work on the IAS Machine: A first-of-its-kind, 1,000-pound binary computer.

The BESM-1 is Constructed

Meanwhile, over in Europe, Soviet scientists were hard at work at the BESM. While there was only one BESM-1 made, the device and its 5,000 vacuum tubes made it the fastest computer on the continent.

1953

Magnetic-Core Memory

1953 saw the invention of magnetic-core memory, the earliest form of random-access computer memory. The innovative new technology was first included in an updated version of MIT’s Whirlwind.

1954

FORTRAN’s Debut

In 1954, IBM developed the first high-level programming language: FORTRAN (or FORmula TRANslation). While initially conceived for scientific and engineering purposes, the programming language is still used today in a variety of industries including weather prediction, geophysics, and computational chemistry.

Mass Production Comes to Computing

With the release of the IBM 650 in 1954, mass production finally came to the computer industry. Over 2,000 IBM 650s were made at the time, thanks in large part to its cheaper price point and less expensive drum storage.

The Naval Ordnance Research Calculator

In 1954, the most powerful computer known to man was IBM’s Naval Ordnance Research Computer (or NORC). A stronger and more advanced version of the IBM 701, the NORC belonged to the US Navy alone.

1956

The Introduction of the Bendix G-15

The Bendix Corporation’s G-15 was introduced in 1956. It was small but powerful, only about five feet high and three feet wide but weighing nearly a thousand pounds. For all its pros and cons, a working model of the computer had a price of nearly $60,000 — nearly half a million dollars in today’s money.

From MINAC to LGP-30

In 1956, defense contracting company General Precision bought the pre-existing MINAC computer and rebranded it as the LGP-30. A rudimentary personal computer, the device was used for nothing more than simple data processing and basic science and engineering.

Fun with the TX-0

At MIT, researchers and developers continually weighed the pros and cons of existing technology in an attempt to further revolutionize future tech. This process led to the creation of the TX-0, the first programmable transistor computer made for general purposes. The early computer had all sorts of state-of-the-art programs including games and 3D graphics.

Magnetic Disc Storage Arrives

With the release of IBM’s RAMAC 305, magnetic disk storage officially came to the world of computing. It contained the world’s very first hard disk drive, complete with 50 metal platters and real-time random access to data.

1957

Printing and Scanning Power

In 1957, IBM debuted the first-ever dot matrix printer while SEAC debuted the earliest computer scanner

1958

Communication Goes Online

With the help of 13,000 transistors, 55,000 vacuum tubes, and 175,000 diodes, SAGE was able to connect 23 computers across the US and China. Across computing’s first large-scale communications network, the network was used to detect and intercept incoming Soviet aircraft. Concurrently, digital phone lines were also developed — they were only for internal phone company users, though. 

The Invention of the Microchip 

Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments invented the integrated circuit — also known as the microchip — in the fall of 1958 (though he didn’t secure the patent until years later). 

1959

Computer-Assisted Manufacturing 

While it’s hard to imagine a world without it today, it wasn’t until 1959 that manufacturers learned how to use computers to help ease the manufacturing process. The Automatically Programmed Tools (or APT) project was the first to make it happen.

MOSFET Makes an Impact 

The MOS transistor, also known as the MOSFET, was invented in 1959 by Bell Labs. The transistor allowed for high-density integrated circuits to thrive and soon became the most universally used semiconductor in computing.

EMRA Debuts

In 1959, Bank of America commissioned a machine that could quickly read and process increasingly popular written checks. By creating the special font still used on checks today, the ERMA — or Electronic Recording Machine, Accounting — was able to process checks faster than any human ever could.

Up Next:

For more information on computers throughout the decades, check these out:

  • Computers in the 1960s: During this era, computers shrank in size and in cost. Find out what innovations graced the decade in this article.
  • Computers in the 1970s: This decade saw the advent of the personal computer. Find out what exactly it entailed and which brands ruled the tech space.
  • Computers in the 1980s: During this era, computers metamorphosed to become faster, in addition to featuring improved design. Find out the one innovation which made it possible as well as the luminaries which transformed the decade and the tech sector.

Computers in the 1950s FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What were computers used for in the 1950s?

In the 1950s, computers were primarily used by businesses to complete mathematic and scientific functions. While some had begun to develop games and word processors throughout the decade, computers were essentially big calculators at this time.

What were computers called in the 1950s?

Computers typically went by acronyms at this time but were almost always referred to as computers first and foremost.

How much did computers cost in the 1950s?

The price of computers in the 1950s was often astronomical — anything less than $50,000 would be a steal. By today’s standards, they could run half a million dollars or more.

What was technology like in the 1950s?

Technology in the 1950s came with its pros and cons. While it wasn’t very advanced yet, not allowing for anything far beyond basic computing and word processing, there was the infinite promise attached to these early computers. It might have been basic at the time, but there was nowhere to go but up.

What were the significant advancements for computers in the 1950s?

The 1950s saw the creation of the microchip, the semiconductor, the hard disk drive, the personal computer, magnetic tape storage, interactive computing, and so much more. These are just a select number of a great many advancements throughout the decade.

How did computers change in America in 1950?

Computers in the 1950s allowed American businesses to completely revolutionize their mathematical and scientific processes, leading to computers becoming more readily available and more easily accessible.

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  • Available here: https://www.computerhistory.org/timeline/1950/
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