The 30 Greatest Computer Advances

This list contains the most important advances in computer technology along with the individual and/or organization responsible for each advance and the year of the advance. It has been created both for educational purposes and as an attempt to see if any pattern exists with regard to innovation related to computers, and perhaps with regard to innovation in general.

abacus   Mesopotamia or China, possibly several thousand years BCE. (Despite its age, this first calculator remained in widespread use in much of Asia through most of the twentieth century.)

binary math   Pingala, India, 3rd century BCE. (The modern binary number system was fully documented by Gottfried Leibniz in the 17th century.)

automatic calculator   Wilhelm Schickard, Germany, 1623. (The first automatic calculators were entirely mechanical and only performed simple arithmetic operations. However, they were an important step in the development of programmable calculators, which are called computers.)

punched card   Basile Bouchon, France, 1725. (Punched cards were originally used to automate looms, and they later became an important data storage device for the first generations of computers.)

electric motor   Michael Faraday, UK, 1821. (Electric motors are necessary for disk drives and for the cooling of vacuum tubes and semiconductor devices. They are also used in most processes for manufacturing computer materials and parts.)

programmable computer   Charles Babbage, UK, 1820s. (Babbage was not able to complete construction of this extremely complex mechanical device, but it was subsequently proved that his plans were completely workable.)

cathode ray tube   Karl Ferdinand Braun, Germany, 1897. (CRT was long the primary display technology for computers.)

liquid crystal display   Otto Lehmann, Germany, 1904. (However, a succession of other advances was necessary before it could become practical for display purposes. The first operational LCD was developed by a group headed George Heilmeier at RCA in the U.S. in 1968.)

ENIAC   J. Presper Eckert and John V. Mauchly, at the University of Pennsylvania, U.S., 1945. (ENIAC was the world's first fully electronic, general purpose, programmable computer.)

hypertext   Vannevar Bush, U.S., 1945. (Bush's classic article As We May Think is often treated as the starting point of the development of hypertext, which is text that contains hyperlinks. This is because of its great influence on subsequent developers, especially Ted Nelson and Douglas Engelbart, who brought the concept much closer to practicality in the 1960s.)

transistor   John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley, at Bell Labs, U.S., 1947.

floppy disk   Yoshiro Nakamatsu, Japan, 1950. (The first working commercial floppy disk was developed by David Noble at IBM in 1969, but IBM acquired a license from Nakamatsu in recognition of his original development of the concept.)

integrated circuit (IC)   Geoffrey W.A. Dummer, Telecommunications Research Establishment, UK, late 1940s and 1950s.

hard disk drive   Reynold Johnson, at IBM, U.S., 1955. (HDDs soon became the dominant primary storage device and, despite their electromechanical nature, have paralleled semiconductor devices with continued rapid improvements in capacity and performance accompanied by steady reductions in size and cost.)

laser   Gordon Gould and Charles Hard Townes, Arthur L. Schawlow (invented separately), U.S., 1958. (Laser diodes, which were subsequently developed, have become indispensable for optical disk data storage and computer networks, all the way from local area networks to the Internet.)

spreadsheet   Richard Mattessich, University of California at Berkeley (UCB), U.S., 1961.

ASCII   AT&T, U.S., 1963. (An acronym for American Standard Code for Information Interchange, ASCII is used on almost all personal computers to represent text, and it is one of the most enduring and successful of computer standards.)

GUI   Douglas C. Engelbart, at Stanford Research Institute (SRI), U.S., mid-1960s. (Among the concepts invented by Engelbart to create graphical user interfaces were bit-mapped screens, multiple windows and the mouse. GUIs were subsequently refined by Xerox PARC and then by Apple Computer.)

UNIX   Ken Thompson, at Bell Labs, U.S., 1969. (Major contributions to UNIX were subsequently made at UCB. UNIX was the first portable operating system and the basis for what are widely agreed to be the best operating systems ever developed.)

Internet   Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), U.S. 1969. (The Internet is the on-going merger of computers and communications. It has changed the basic computer paradigm from that of stand-alone machines by essentially combining large numbers of individual computers into a single, integrated computer which vastly increases the amount of information available to any user.)

relational database   Edgar F. Codd, at IBM, U.S., 1970. (The relational model is now at the core of almost all large-scale database management systems.)

e-mail   Ray Tomlinson, U.S., 1971. (Along with the web, e-mail remains one of the two main applications of the Internet.)

single-chip microprocessor   Ted Hoff, Federico Faggin and Stanley Mazor, at Intel, U.S., 1971.

C programming language   Dennis Ritchie, at Bell Labs, U.S., early 1970s. (C has probably been the most influential programming language, and it remains one of the most widely used despite its age.)

Smalltalk   Xerox PARC, 1970s. (Smalltalk was a pioneer in several important programming concepts including object orientation. A strong case could be made for listing C++, which was developed by Bjarne Stroustrup, at Bell Labs in 1983, because of its extensive use and great influence. Moreover, the concept of objects dates back even further, to the 1960s.)

word processor   Wang Laboratories and others, U.S., 1970s.

personal computer   Butler Lampson and Chuck Thacker, at Xerox PARC, U.S., 1972. (Called the Alto, it was also the first computer to use a GUI. The first personal computer to be commercially available may have been the Altair 8800, which was offered from 1975 and was available only in kit form.)

CD   Philips Electronics and Sony Corporation, The Netherlands and Japan, 1980. (The compact disk has become a primary means of program and data storage. Similar technology is used in its successors, such as DVDs.)

World Wide Web   Tim Berners-Lee, CERN, Switzerland, 1989.

GPL   Richard Stallman, U.S., 1991. (The GNU General Public License is revolutionary because it is helping return both the ownership of and the benefits from advances in software technology to the public as a whole, just as they originally were, and just as mathematics and the sciences have been for thousands of years. This has been resulting in a reinvigoration of the software field and an increased pace of technological advance.)

Although no list of this type can be truly scientific, some tentative, but perhaps mostly obvious, conclusions can be drawn from it:

(1) The center of innovation has shifted westward, from Asia and the Near East in ancient times to Western Europe, particularly Germany and England, following the end of the Dark Ages. The U.S. has dominated computer innovation since at least the end of the Second World War.

(2) Slightly more than a third of the innovations occurred at corporations. AT&T (mainly its Bell Labs) has four, IBM has three and Xerox PARC has two. In most cases, these breakthroughs were the idea of a single individual rather than that of a committee or of the company as a whole. Interestingly, not one of these advances is attributable to Microsoft, despite its role of the world's largest software supplier for well in excess of a decade.

(3) Of the 30 entries, about a third occurred from the early 1960s through the 1970s, and only three occurred after that.

Amazingly, none of the advances occurred during the past 15 years, despite the tremendous progress that has been made in almost all areas of the computer field during this period. This could be because the period has been primarily one of refining and extending earlier technologies. It is also possible that some of innovations made during the period might not yet be fully appreciated and seem more important when viewed at some future date. Some of the areas of technological advance in recent years that could eventually the list are in the fields of bioelectronics, high temperature superconductivity, nanotechnology and fully optical integrated circuits.

Suggestions for additions and corrections are welcome and should be sent to bellevuelinux at

Created June 5, 2006.
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