Introduction to Industrial Engineering

By Jane M. Fraser

Chapter 12

The past and the future

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12.10 Programmable controls, computers, and communication technology

Computation has been a goal since prehistoric times. We use a decimal counting base because humans first used their hands, with ten digits, to count and to compute. The Mayans used a base 20 system, perhaps counting on fingers and toes. Stonehenge, the large stone structure near Salisbury, England, is just one example of a computer for astronomical events. Archaeoastronomy is the study of such ancient sites, including the Great Pyramid in Egypt, Mayan structures in Yucatan, Mexico, and astronomical structures in Chaco Canyon, Arizona. Many sites in the Western United States have rock carvings that function as solar calendars.

We owe a large debt to contributions from Arabic mathematicians, as shown in the Arabic roots of words like algebra and algorithm.

Explorers and travelers needed accurate navigational tools and computation. Geoff Watts wrote about the need for accurate tide charts:

"I was in a West Indies ship running for a bar harbour in Ireland ... when we beat off our gripe, rudder and a great deal of the stern port, and an after part of the keel upon the bar, and had seven feet water in the hold, and was obliged to run on shore to prevent sinking." William Hutchinson, dock master of the Old Dock at Liverpool, knew from experience what could happen if you misjudge the tide.

In the 18th century, ships on their way into port were frequently stranded or holed when they unexpectedly hit a sandbar or rammed the stone sill at the dock entrance. The common methods of predicting the height of the tide were woefully inadequate and such accidents were an occupational hazard.

The modern computer has roots in the invention of digital logic by George Boole (1815-1864) and the designs of the Difference Engine and Analytical Engine by Charles Babbage (1792-1871). Boolean logic allows numerical calculations to be performed by mechanical operations on switches, each of which can be on or off. Babbage and other inventors were hampered by the slowness and lack of precise tolerances of known technologies, but progress continued to be made; numbers from the 1890 US census were tabulated by a punched-card machine invented by Hans Hollerith (1860-1929).

Campbell-Kelly and Aspray also describe the roots of computing in business machines, used for calculating and accounting. They describe developments during the end of the 18th century (page 28):

Two lines of development emerged in this period: The basic technologies of small calculating machines, such as desk calculators, accounting machines, and cash registers, were settled; and a business machines industry was established to build these machines. The U.S. government supported the development of the first large-scale calculating technology, the punched-card system. However, during the nineteenth century neither of these technologies was widespread. Accurate figures are hard to come by, but we know, for example, that Burroughs, the leading accounting machine manufacturer, sold only 236 machines in 1895. Hollerith had almost no business in the 1890s after the census was tallied, and his company was reduced to four employees. But as the new century dawned, these technologies began to catch on.

The invention of the vacuum tube in the early 1900s opened new possibilities. John Mauchly (1907-1980) and J. Presper Eckert (1919-1995) are usually credited with building the first serious computer, the ENIAC, commissioned by the US Department of Defense. It used 18,000 vacuum tubes, consumed huge amounts of electricity, and emitted huge amounts of heat.

An even better on/off switch was invented in 1947 by a team at Bell Laboratories, the transistor. Other crucial inventions include the integrated chip (with transistors and other electronic components embedded in a single piece of silicon, reducing the need for the often faulty soldered connections), the microprocessor (a computer on a chip), and various inventions allowing even more transistors to be packed into a smaller space.

The invention of computers and the growth in their use has been fueled by three types of use:

  1. office uses: document preparation; information storage and retrieval; accounting computations and financial records; and the tabulation of data, such as census results.
  2. science and engineering uses: calculations for tables, such as the calculation of tide tables; military uses such as the calculation of ballistic flight paths and calculations for the design of atomic bombs and other weapons;
  3. manufacturing production and control: automation of production, for example, the Jacquard loom;