History of Computers Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Charla Crews

Charla, an educator for over 30 years, has degrees in Early Childhood Education, SPED, and Educational Leadership.

Computers. They are everywhere, and we all use them. They are in watches, games and even car keys. Who invented them? What were the first computers like? Explore this lesson to learn the answers to these questions.

Necessity Is the Mother of Invention

The history of computers can be summarized by the saying, 'necessity is the mother of invention'. This means something is created to fill a need.

Thousands of years ago, people needed a better way to do mathematical calculations, like addition and subtraction. So, they invented the abacus. An abacus was a wooden rack containing rows of beads. Calculations were made by moving beads on the rack to left or to the right. Abacuses are still in use today.

Danish abacus from an elementary school
Danish abacus

During the 17th century, a teenager named Pascal wanted to help his father add up the money he received as a tax collector. At this time, a person who did calculations or computations was known as a 'computer'. Pascal invented a mechanical calculator that used moving parts, such as gears, to add and subtract. It was the first machine to do what people had done using an abacus for centuries! In the years to come, several people succeeded in improving the mechanical calculator. Lots of people still use calculators to do math.

The Mechanical Calculator Leads to a Mechanical Computer

The next major milestone in the history of the computer occurred in the 19th century. A man named Charles Babbage devised a calculating machine known as a 'calculation engine'. This was a very large and complicated device, with lots of rods and moving gears. It had four components: an input, a processor, memory, and an output. These four components are still a part of all computers today.

A replica of calculating engine invented by Babbage
Babbges Engine

Over the years, people improved on the calculating engine. One major improvement occurred when the many moving parts were changed to switches controlled by numbers or digits, which led to the term 'digital'. Switches were later replaced by computer chips that could store information in a small area. Another change occurred with the meaning of the word 'computer' from a person who did computations to a machine that did computations.

These tiny computer chips store lots of information.
Computer chip

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