Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2014
  • Online publication date: December 2014

16 - The third age of computing


Every 30 years there is a new wave of things that computers do. Around 1950 they began to model events in the world (simulation), and around 1980 to connect people (communication). Since 2010 they have begun to engage with the physical world in a non-trivial way (embodiment).

Butler Lampson

The next revolution

The first age of computing was concerned with using computers for simulation. As we have seen, the first computers were built to do complex calculations. The initial motivation for building the ENIAC was to calculate artillery tables showing the angles at which guns should be fired based on the distance to the target and other conditions. After World War II, scientists used the ENIAC to explore possible designs for a hydrogen bomb. More generally, computers were used to simulate complex systems defined in terms of a mathematical model that captured the essential characteristics of the system under study. During the first thirty years of computing, from about 1950 until the early 1980s, researchers increasingly used computers for simulations of all sorts of complex systems. Computer simulations have transformed our lives, from designing cars and planes to making weather forecasts and financial models. At the same time, businesses used computers for performing the many, relatively simple calculations needed to manage inventories, payroll systems, and bank transactions. Even these very early computers could perform numerical calculations much, much faster than humans.