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Computer Generations

An international conference in 1962 classified computers into 5 distinct

generations 3 of which are already passed by and we are in fourth
generation now. The fifth generation computers are undergoing
research and a few computers of this generation are developed that
meets some of the expected feature of fifth generation.
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Each generation of computers is characterized by a major

technological development that fundamentally changed the way
computers operate, resulting in increasingly smaller, cheaper, more
powerful, and more efficient and reliable devices.
There are often questions in PSC Exam like what characterizes a
computer of particular generation. Following is a question from 2011
33. How was the generation of computer classified?
a. By the model of the computer
b. By the device used in memory & processor
c. By the time period
d. None of the above
In fact, each computer is classified into different generations based on
what electronic component it used. Its not the time period, nor the
Id included this question in sample test for the participants of eCourse
and surprisingly found that many students did the very mistake.
Vacuum tubes, transistors, ICs, LSI & VLSI chips are used as switching
components or memory and processing devices.

First Generation
First generation computers used vacuum tubes as switching device and
magnetic drum for memory. These computers were often huge,
occupying an entire hall.

The image shows different vacuum tubes.

Because first generation computers used vacuum tubes, they
consumed a lot of electricity and produced excessive heat. You require
cooling facilities to operate computers. This was the major problem of

this generation of computers. Moreover, these tubes burned out

because of too much heating and need to be replaced more frequently.
The operation cost of these computers was too expensive.
In first generation computers, the operating instructions or programs
were specifically built for the task for which computer was
manufactured. The Machine language was the only way to tell these
machines to perform the operations. There was great difficulty to
program these computers and more when there were some

Magnetic Drum

Since when the first generation computers started?

There are two different views regarding from when the first generation
began. Some believe that it started from 1946 when the first computer
using valve ENIAC was developed. Do you remember how many
vacuum tubes ENIAC used?
Some othersargue that we should consider EDSAC as the first
computer of first generation because it is the first computer to use
stored procedure a true computer in modern sense. ENIAC was just a
calculator! If you consider EDSAC is the first computer of first
generation, then 1949 should be the starting of first generation.
Note: There is no fixed and generally agreed date for any of the
generations. In fact the computers are classified into different
generations based on the switching component and technology rather
than time slots. Consider the dates as tentative.
More generally the duration of first generation computers is 1946 to
Features of First Generation Computers
They used vacuum tubes or valves as main electronic component
They were large in size, slow in processing and had small storage
They consumed lots of electricity and produced excessive heat
They were less reliable than later generation computers
They used machine level language for programming
Examples of First Generation Computers



IBM 650

Vacuum Tubes
The vacuum tube was an extremely important step in the
advancement of computers. Vacuum tubes were invented the same
time the light bulb was invented by Thomas Edison and worked very
similar to light bulbs. Its purpose was to act like an amplifier and a
switch. Without any moving parts, vacuum tubes could take very weak
signals and make the signal stronger (amplify it).Vacuum tubes could
also stop and start the flow of electricity instantly (switch).These two
properties made the ENIAC computer possible.
In 904, John Ambrose Fleming invented the first practical electron tube
called the FlemingValve. Feming invents the vacuum tube diode.
In 1906, Lee de Forest invented the audion later called the triode, an
improvement on the Fleming Valve tube.
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Second Generation
In 1906 the American physicist Lee De Forest invented vacuum tube
triode. It was the first three terminal device and enabled amplification

and switching of electrical signals. Though it helped to push the

development of technology a great deal, it had its own problems. The
metal that emitted electrons in the vacuum tubes burned out. It
occupied lot of space, consumed much power and produced heat.

In 1947 the three Americanphysicists - John Bardeen, William Shockley,
and Walter Brattain - at Bell Telephone Laboratories invented
transistors. They received the 1956 Nobel Prize jointly for this
awesome invention.Transistors proved to be a much better alternative
to the vacuum tubes. They were much smaller, produce low heat and
were very reliable. This made it possible to develop computers smaller,
efficient and more reliable.
Second Generation of Computers (1955 to 1964)
By 1948, the invention of the transistor greatly changed the
computers development. Coupled with early advances in magneticcore memory, transistors led to second generation computers that
were smaller, faster, more reliable and more energy-efficient than their
The first large-scale machines to take advantage of this transistor
technology were early supercomputers Stretch by IBM and LARC by
Sperry-Rand. These machines were costly, however, and tended to be
too powerful for the business sectors computing needs, thereby
limiting their attractiveness.
A remarkable improvement realized in this generation was the
development of assembly language. Assembly language was
abbreviated programming codes to replace the machine language
the difficult binary codes.
Towards the early 1960s, there were a number of commercially
successful second generation computers used in businesses,
universities, and government. They contained all the components we
associate with the modern day computer: printers, tape storage, disk
storage, memory, and stored programs.
One important example was the IBM 1401, which was universally
accepted throughout industry. This is the first computer to enter into
Nepal as well. Nepal brought this computer for the census of 2028 BS.
It was the stored program and programming language that gave
computers the flexibility to finally be cost effective and productive for
business use.
CLARIFICATION: The stored program concept means the instructions
to run a computer for a specific function (known as a program) were
held inside the computers memory, and could quickly be replaced by a
different set of instructions for a different function.
More sophisticated high-level languages such as COBOL (Common
Business-Oriented Language) and FORTRAN (Formula Translator) came
into common use during this time, and have expanded to the current
Features of Second Generation Computers

Second generation computers used transistors as their main

electronic component.
These computers were much smaller, reliable and more powerful
Apart from machine language, assembly language were
developed and used in this generation
Some high level languages like COBOL & FORTRAN were
introduced towards the end of second generation
The computers of second generation used Stored Program
Printers, tape storage, disk storage, memory were started from
second generation of computers
Processing speed improved to microseconds

Examples of Second Generation Computers

IBM 7030 Stretch

IBM 1401


Third Generation
Many people enjoy a misconception that all larger computers are from
older generations and small computers are the fourth generation
computers. Remember, computers are classified into different
generations NOT based on their sizes. Though it is true that the old
computers were compelled to be of bigger size (larger components and
lack of advanced technology).
The vacuum tubes used in first generation were replaced by transistors
in second and which in turn were replaced by ICs (Integrated Circuits)
in third generation computers. So, first of all, lets look at those ICs.

Integrated Circuits
Integrated Circuit (IC) is a small electronic device made out of
semiconductor material. The first integrated circuit was developed in

the 1950s by Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments and Robert Noyce of

Fairchild Semiconductor. - WeboPedia
It is amusing to know that two people thought about the same solution
but independently. Here is the interesting story about how Robert
Noyce got the patent.
Please check R.C. Khanals Computer Concept book. He has nicely
explained how these IC Chips are manufactured in Computer
Generations chapter. Notice the terms silicon, wafers, and
So, after the invention of IC Chips, it is possible to integrate thousands
of registers, diodes, capacitors and many other electronic components
and circuitry in a tiny chip.
Integrated circuits are referred with different names like Chips, ICs,
Microchips, and so on.
A tiny chip contains the whole electronic network that performs
complex tasks.

Types of Integrated Circuits

SSI (small-scale integration):
Up to 100 electronic components per chip
MSI (medium-scale integration):
From 100 to 3,000 electronic components per chip
LSI (large-scale integration):
From 3,000 to 100,000 electronic components per chip
VLSI (very large-scale integration):
From 100,000 to 1,000,000 electronic components per chip
ULSI (ultra large-scale integration):
More than 1 million electronic components per chip
Third Generation Computers (1964-1971)
The computers using small scale integration circuits (SSI)and medium
scale integration circuits (MSI) are under this class. The invention of IC
Chips made it possible to greatly reduce the size of computers with
improvement in operation speed (nanoseconds) and reliability.
The most noticeable achievement of third generation is the
development of operatingsystems. The operating systems allowed
the machines to run many different applications. These applications
were monitored and coordinated by the computers memory.
In 1969 AT&T Bell Laboratories programmers Kenneth Thompson and
Dennis Ritchie developed the UNIXoperating system on a spare DEC
minicomputer. UNIX was the first modern operating system that
provided a sound intermediary between software and hardware. UNIX
provided the user with the means to allocate resources on the fly,
rather than requiring the resources be allocated in the design stages.
The UNIX operating system quickly secured a wide following,
particularly among engineers and scientists at universities and other
computer science organizations.
User interface devices such as Keyboards&Monitors started from
this generation. Similarly, GUI also was started from third generation.
These are important development of third generation.

Characteristics of Third Generation Computers

Third Generation Computers were based on integrated circuit
(IC) technology.
Third Generation Computers were able to reduce computational
time from microseconds to nanoseconds
Third Generation Computers utilized operating systems to
centrally control and made it possible for multiple programs to run on a
Users interacted with computers through keyboards and
mouse rather than traditional punched cards and printers.
Third Generation Computers devices consumed less power
and generated less heat. In some cases, air conditioning was still
The size of Third Generation Computers was smaller as
compared to previous computers
Since hardware of the Third Generation Computers rarely failed,
the maintenance cost was quite low.
Extensive use of high-level language became possible in Third
Generation Computers.
Manual assembling of individual components was not required for
Third Generation Computers, so it reduced the large requirement of
labor & cost. However, for the manufacture of IC chips, highly
sophisticated technologies were required
Commercial production became easier and cheaper.

IBM 360



Fourth Generation Computers

Fourth generation for the computers is the era of blooming in

multiple dimensions rather than invention of electronic components.
Fourth generation computers use ICs as in third generation. But third
generation computers used Small Scale and Medium Scale ICs where
as in fourth generation Large Scale ICs (LSI), Very Large Scale ICs
(VLSI) and the Ultra Large Scale ICs (ULSI) are used.
As millions of electronic components got integrated in a tiny chip, the
computers became very small with increased speed, reliability and
reduction in cost.
The size of computer reduced to mini computers and microcomputers.
Today, we have laptops, palm tops and pocket PCs.
Probably the most important development in this generation is
microprocessor. The Intel4004 chip, developed in 1971, took the
integrated circuit one step further by locating all the components of a
computer (central processing unit, memory, and input and output
controls) on a minute chip. Whereas previously the integrated circuit
had had to be manufactured to fit a special purpose, now one
microprocessor could be manufactured and then programmed to meet
any number of demands. Soon everyday household items such as
microwave ovens, television sets, and automobiles with electronic fuel
injection incorporated microprocessors
In this generation mini computers were built that had more user
friendly software packages like word-processor and spreadsheet
In 1981, IBM introduced its personal computer (PC) for use in the
home, office and schools. Other companies made the clones of IBM PCs
to make the personal computers more affordable.
In 1984 Apple developed its Macintosh line. Notable for its userfriendly design, the Macintosh offered an operating system that
allowed users to move screen icons instead of typing instructions.
Users controlled the screen cursor using a mouse.
Fourth generation is the duration when we saw the tremendous
improvement in operating systems and high level programming
As the small computers become powerful, it was possible to link and
work in cooperative environment. This led to the invention of
networking. WAN, MAN, LAN and PAN networks came into existence.

Fifth Generation Computers

Up to the fourth generation we saw how computers evolved as the
switching devices improved. Fifth generation computers are future
In 1982 Japan started a project named Fifth Generation Computer
Systems Project (FGCS) initiated to create a fifth generation
computer which was supposed to perform much calculation using
massive parallel processing. The project was to create the computer
over a ten year period, after which it was considered ended and
investment in a new, Sixth Generation project, began. Opinions about
its outcome are divided: Either it was a failure, or it was ahead of its

time. Anyway, its out of our context for the moment. I just wished to
make you aware you of this fact.
Fifth generation computers are anticipated new type of computer
based on emerging microelectronic technologies with high computing
speeds and parallel processing. Other major expectations out of this
generation are the ability to use natural language and
acquire artificial intelligence (AI). Computers will be able to learn by
its experience. These computers are being made using ULSI (Ultra
Large Scale IC) and Bio-Chips.
We can see some development in achieving these features already.
Parallel processing, voice recognition systems and some level of
intelligence is been already realized.
CLARIFICATION: Use natural language computers will be able to
understand and use the language that we use in speaking rather than
the specially structured commands we are still using in computers.
Examples of Fifth Generation Computers
If y are looking for the examples of fifth generation computers, PIM/m,
PIM/p, PIM/i, PIM/k, PIM/c are the computers.

Points to Remember

An international conference in1962 divided the development of

computers into five distinct generations based on main electronic
component used on them.
The computers that used vacuum tubes are first generation
computers and they range the date 1946 to 1958.
Vacuum tube diode was first developed by the English physicist
Sir John Ambrose Fleming.
Vacuum tube triode was invented in 1906 by the American
engineer Lee De Forest.
First generation computers were very large, consumed a lot of
power producing excessive heat. They had low level of accuracy and
Machine language was used to program first generation
Because thousands of vacuum tubes were used, they produced a
lot of heat. Cooling facility was required in any room where
computers were installed. Vacuum tubes were burnt out frequently
and maintenance cost was very high. This was the main drawback
of first generation of computers.
Second generation computers used transistors as their main
electronic component. Transistorwas much smaller, produced almost
no heat and thus, they had a tremendousimpact in development of
computers and other electronic devices.
Second generation computers were developed in 1959 to 1964
Transistors were invented in 1947 by trio Bell Lab scientists
Walter Brattain, John Bardeen, and William Bradford Shockley.
Assembly language was used to program second generation
Magnetic tapes and disks were used as main secondary
storage media.

Third generation computers were developed in 1965 to

1974 that used integrated circuits (ICs) also called microchip as main
electronic component.
Transistors were invented by two scientists independently in
1958 Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments and Robert Noyce of Fairchild
Semiconductor Corporation.
Monitors and Keyboards were introduced in third generation
for input and output of data.
High level languages were use to program in third generation.
Fourth generation computers are developed during 1975 to
1990 which used LSI and VLSI microprocessors.
Invention of microprocessors is the most startling development in
fourth generation.
Personal Computers (PCs) were introduced and are very
popular. GUI was developed in fourth generation.
The first microprocessor called Intel 4004 was developed by
American Intel Corporation in 1971.
The fifth generation computer project conducted jointly by
several Japanese computer manufacturers under the sponsorship of
the Japanese government, emphasized artificial intelligence.
Artificial intelligence is the branch of computer science
concerned with designing intelligent computer system that possesses
reasoning, learning and thinking capabilities resembling those of a
human being.
Fifth generation computers will use super conductor
technology - Gallium Arsenide chips or Biochips.
Quantum computation and nanotechnology will radically
change the face of computers in years to come.