In the late 1890s a conference of physicists was held in Paris, France, wherein the discussion ended in proclaiming that there was nothing left to be discovered. The scientists had already discovered the atom, the smallest particle of an element, and the presumption was that there was nothing beyond this smallest of particle. A few years later radioactivity was discovered and the splitting of the atom was accomplished. This changed the entire thinking process of scientists.
During the first decade of the 20th century, as early as the year 1902, the English teachers who had arrived in India to teach in various cities of India, including the Nizam State of Hyderabad-Deccan, were questioning the concept of flying by human beings and making derogatory remarks about the flying carpet and the people of the Middle East. They would declare that it was impossible for human beings to fly. During that same period, the Wright Brothers in the United States were attempting to fly their crudely designed airplane. In less than 70 years from the beginning of the 20th century, human beings were able to build flying machines, airplanes, rockets and space ships and were successful in landing astronauts on the surface of the moon in the year 1969.
After splitting the atom and discovering radioactivity, the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics were moved from the development stage to practical application that enabled production of nuclear weapons. This forced scientists to pay more attention to the issues of human survival and international security. At that time the world was transformed by a revolution in solid-state physics that allowed scientists to move forward into new areas of innovation. Advances in physics also led to the development of the transistor, the semiconductor and ultimately to the beginning of information technology that changed human and economic life for ever. At the present time we are witnessing an information technology revolution. The scientists, researchers, engineers, inventors and innovators of our time strongly believe that the most successful period in human invention is the 50-year period from 1946 to 1996 that witnessed tremendous growth in technology and scientific knowledge. During this period, one milestone topped another.
Computers, cyberspace, aircraft, composites, control devices, adhesives, fibre optics, integrated circuits, lasers, microprocessors, nuclear weapons, plastics, the printed circuit, robots, software, spacecraft, telephones, telescopes, television, transistors and copiers are some of the inventions, discoveries and improvements that have made the 50 years after the end of the World War II the most momentous time in human history.
COMPUTERS, ELECTRONICS AND CYBERSPACE
Today our world depends on millions upon millions of personal computers that can do everything from helping students do their homework and allowing small businesses to set up their accounting systems, to aiding scientists, engineers and designers in making scientific calculations and finalising designs using laptop computers. When the same computer is connected to the internet, it launches the users into cyberspace, propelling them to the extremes of not only this globe but also to the ends of the universe. Large computers, mainframe computers and supercomputers are now being assigned the tasks of conducting medical research, weapon development and the design of sophisticated and powerful machines and equipment. In 1946 the first all-electronic computer was designed and built that weighed 30 tons, contained 18,000 vacuum tubes, and could make several hundred calculations a minute. The large expensive mainframe computers that were developed later were used by the major companies to do their accounting, collect and analyse data, and make scientific calculations. Later, the introduction of the personal computer gave “power to the people”. In 1974, the Altair became the first widely available personal computer, and in 1980s IBM introduced the personal computer that was followed by the Apple Macintosh computer. Today’s computers can make more than a trillion calculations a second.
The invention of the transistor revolutionised the world of electronics, computers and later, the internet. In the 1940s the switching units in computers were mechanical relays which were replaced by vacuum tubes. Transistors were much better than tubes and could perform all the functions of the vacuum tube in electronic circuits. They required much less electric current, did not generate as much heat, and were much smaller than vacuum tubes. With its small size and power requirements, the transistor made the vacuum tube obsolete. Years later, the process of miniaturisation of the electronic components took place: transistors, diodes, resistors, capacitors and other components were packaged into integrated circuits that could perform thousands of functions simultaneously. Another important development was the process of manufacturing printed circuit boards and their use in arranging the designed circuits on the network of fine conductive lines printed on a thin ceramic or plastic sheet. This miniaturisation led to the development of microprocessors that had several thousand transistors on a silicon chip which in turn processed hundreds of thousands of instructions a second. Integrated circuits are widely used in computers, pocket calculators, cell phones, industrial monitoring and control systems, communication networks, consumer electronics and other types of electronic equipment. It is interesting to note that the world’s first electric wristwatches were sold to the public in 1957. Industrial robots were enabled by computers and electronic miniaturisation.
Of course computers cannot operate without software. The earliest high-level computer programming languages involved the use of punched cards. Later, several other programmes were developed. In 1964, computer-aided design software was introduced by IBM that enabled engineers to do their designing on the computer rather than on drawing boards. Later a CAD/CAM (Computer Aided Design/Computer Aided Manufacturing) system was developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, making it possible to design more compact and complex devices and machines. The development of the numerically-controlled programming systems and DAC (Design Augmented by Computers), the first interactive graphics manufacturing system, further simplified the design process.
In the 1960s scientists and research engineers worked vigorously on the concept of sending computer data through telephone lines. At the same time, cyberspace was launched when the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the United States government successfully established a network consisting of computers at four universities. This was the beginning of the Internet. By 1981, there were 200 host computers on the Internet and within 10 years the number of internet users grew to 300,000. By 1996 the number of users reportedly reached 50 million. The hottest information centre on the internet at that time was the World Wide Web that allowed users to call up sounds, graphics and text. The European Library for Particle Physics at CERN in Geneva introduced and released the web in 1991. The web had 7.5 million daily users by 1996, prompting companies, universities, government agencies and even ordinary users to set up their own web pages and web sites. Today, the number of web sites and the number of users throughout the world is over one billion and growing.
(to be continued)