8 Famous Computers with a Pathetic Amount of Power

By Shaun Clayton in Daily Lists, Tech
Wednesday, May 30, 2012 at 8:03 am
According to Moore's Law, the amount of transistors that can be placed on a chip effectively doubles every two years. This means that as time goes by, computers become smaller and smaller, shrinking from the massive, room-sized computers at MIT back in the '50s to the thin laptops and tiny cellphones in our pockets today.

It also means that computers have gotten exponentially more powerful during this same timeframe. Indeed, the power of your little handheld smartphone is now more powerful than the mightiest computers of the past, ones that cost millions to manufacture and could definitely not fit in your pocket. Here are eight of these most famous computers -- the most powerful processing machines of their times -- none of which would be able to run Jetpack Joyride for shit.

8) The Commodore 64


Sellling for $595 in 1982, the Commodore 64 was the everyman's (or more likely everyboy's) computer of the 1980s.  This little beige plastic number could be used from everything from Blue Max to Castle Wolfenstein to Wizard of War, and some productivity software in there somewhere. The clock speed was around 1 mhz. The RAM, like the name implies, was 64 kilobytes. Your modern computer goes through resources like this in... probably a nanosecond?  The standard drive on a Commodore 64 was the behemoth 1541 disk drive which ran 5.25-inch Floppies, storing an amazing 170kb of data. Your standard 1 terabyte external hard drive is probably one fifth the size, is much, much quieter, and can store a comparable 5,882,000 warez copies of Raid on Bungeling Bay.


7) The Original Macintosh 128k


Well, let's compare Apples to Apples - namely, Apple's original beige box, the Macintosh, as it was first released in 1984 to an iPhone 4.  This box was bout as portable as you could get at the time.  It has a processor working at 8 MHz, so the iPhone already has a clock speed that is 100 times faster, not considering say, improvements in bus speed, which have been quite staggering in 30 years. The memory, as the name clearly implies, was 128k, so the iPhone has 4,096 times more memory than this early Macintosh computer. Ha! Take that 1984!  Though they do have one important thing in common -- they will both break if you drop them on concrete.


6) The Compaq Deskpro 386


The Intel 386 chip was used in a variety of home PCs, but one of the first was the Compaq Deskpro.  It came out in 1986, beating IBM to the market by several months, and went on to be a big seller for those who hated the Macintosh/wanted to play actual games.  It was actually the beginning of the end of IBMs dominance in making IBM-compatible computers.  Costing $6,499 in 1980s dollars at release, the computer had a 32-bit bus and a COMPLETELY ASTONISHING 16 MHz clock speed.  This was excellent for running something like Wing Commander at 640x480 in 256 colors, which is a frame-size and color depth we would consider to be a mistake.  Still, when this came out this was amazing.  No, really, it was.


5) The Colossus 


The Colossus was the first electronic, digital computer built 1943 by the British Government.  It was built to win World War II, and so vital was the work this machine did that it wasn't declassified until the late 1970s. The main purpose of The Colossus (of which there were several iterations, or Colossuses) was cryptography on the German Lorenz machines used to encrypt strategic data. The Lorenz machines (of which there were several iterations, or Lozenges) were very complex metal and rotor devices that were super steampunk, and could generate codes that were "in theory" unreakable.  The Colossus was dedicated to smashing this hubris. The massive machine didn't have storage for programs as it was reconfigured with plugs and switches to complete specific tasks. Input of codes came rocketing through on paper tape that it read optically -- at optimal speed it would generate 5,000 characters a second, shooting paper through at about 30mph, or about the speed of a cat unraveling your toilet paper. Still despite this lack of power, it did help defeat the Nazis.




Built in 1946 by the United States, and sounding like some sort of DC Golden Age supervillain, the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) had a "clock speed" calculated as 100 kHz, or one tenth of a MHz, or "is that really a clock speed?" It's really hard to exactly tell the "clock speed though", ENIAC didn't really have a clock.  ENIAC was really a more realistic metaphor for "The Internets" as a giant series of thousands of tubes.  Tens of thousands of tubes. It was also fragile: for example, when your phone freezes, typically you have to pull out the battery or, at worst hook it up to your computer and wipe it. With the ENIAC they were lucky to have it running for a few hours without blowing out a few hundred vacuum tubes. Further, there was no memory, as the only data storage was punch cards -- which did not store a lot of data and had to be carefully ordered.  One of the first test runs of it involved calculations for the hydrogen bomb which had an input/output of a million cards.  That's a lot of punching.  Still, despite the work needed to make the damn thing run, it was the first general use, programmable computer, cracking down staggering math problems in much less time than humans could possibly do, even with an abacus and a gallon of Red Bull.


3) The SGI IRIS Crimson


Code named Diehard2, it was one of the first 64 bit workstations released around 1993.  It's specialized chipset made it ideal for 3D animation and was used a lot in commercial work at the time. It has a brief claim to fame a-s being seen as the computer system used in Jurassic Park, used to run the park itself.  Still, with all of this impressiveness it had most a 150 MHz processor, which would cost you tens of thousands of dollars to get, and a memory maximum of 256mb which would cost you thousands of dollars more.  It did, impressively have an internal capacity maximum 7.2 GB but that would cost you the deed to a house. Still, it can't play Angry Birds, so what good is it?


2) The Cray-1 


The Cray was pretty much with synonymous with "Supercomputer" until the early 1990s.  This first model was announced in 1975, and was a smash hit. This crunched numbers for everything from weather predictions to nuclear physics.  It was pretty much the computer for a long time.  It ran at a clock speed of at 80mHz.  That may sound like a pathetic amount of clock speed, but the Cray-1 had to have brand new cooling technology developed to pump 40-tons of Freon through it to prevent it from setting itself and the surrounding room on fire.  The memory capacity on the Cray-1 was an impressive 8mb, which would fit on a small portion of your pocket drive. However, the Cray 1 did have a nice seating area built into it, something your pocket drive can never have. 

1) The Apollo Guidance Computer 


This was the computer that got the astronauts to the moon--TO THE MOON. This little Wunderkind of silicon was one of the first integrated-circuit devices, developed by MIT UltraNerds in the 1960s. This had a clock speed of 2.048 MHz. The memory on this machine was used for storing important functions of handling guidance, navigation and control of the lunar spacecraft was only 2k.  That's maybe just enough space to store a Word Document in which you wrote "2k." The storage capacity on the AGC was read-only memory, but slightly larger at 32k. Still, it was important ROM, as it was needed to keep the astronauts from smashing into the lunar surface from orbit. Also, of mention is that the Apollo Guidance Computer it had to fit inside those spacecraft, so it had to be powerful and light. "Light" being 70 lbs. The iPhone 4 is designed to fit in a pocket and is 233 times lighter at 4.8 oz. It also comes in white! It should be further mentioned that when it came to the actual moon landing, the AGM suffered a huge performance degradation when a hardware bug occurred and set off a series of alarms. Thanks to talented nerds at mission control, they were able to recognize the alarms were not, say, the lander about to blow up. The software on the AGM automatically reset itself to free up the computer to actually make the crucial landing calculations, and history got made.

Email Print

Sponsor Content