History of Computing Hardware (1960s–present) - Mainframes and Minicomputers

Mainframes and Minicomputers

Before the introduction of the microprocessor in the early 1970s, computers were generally large, costly systems owned by large institutions: corporations, universities, government agencies, and the like. Users—who were experienced specialists—did not usually interact with the machine itself, but instead prepared tasks for the computer on off-line equipment, such as card punches. A number of assignments for the computer would be gathered up and processed in batch mode. After the jobs had completed, users could collect the output printouts and punched cards. In some organizations it could take hours or days between submitting a job to the computing center and receiving the output.

A more interactive form of computer use developed commercially by the middle 1960s. In a time-sharing system, multiple teleprinter terminals let many people share the use of one mainframe computer processor. This was common in business applications and in science and engineering.

A different model of computer use was foreshadowed by the way in which early, pre-commercial, experimental computers were used, where one user had exclusive use of a processor. Some of the first computers that might be called "personal" were early minicomputers such as the LINC and PDP-8, and later on VAX and larger minicomputers from Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), Data General, Prime Computer, and others. They originated as peripheral processors for mainframe computers, taking on some routine tasks and freeing the processor for computation. By today's standards they were physically large (about the size of a refrigerator) and costly (typically tens of thousands of US dollars), and thus were rarely purchased by individuals. However, they were much smaller, less expensive, and generally simpler to operate than the mainframe computers of the time, and thus affordable by individual laboratories and research projects. Minicomputers largely freed these organizations from the batch processing and bureaucracy of a commercial or university computing center.

In addition, minicomputers were more interactive than mainframes, and soon had their own operating systems. The minicomputer Xerox Alto (1973) was a landmark step in the development of personal computers, because of its graphical user interface, bit-mapped high resolution screen, large internal and external memory storage, mouse, and special software.

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