Evolution of computing power

Dave Tutelman  -  3/21/2015

I just got a smartphone. I didn't get it as a phone, though of course it has that capability. I got it as a computer! I have been watching for an inexpensive but good-quality Android phone, because there are a few Android apps for golf that I'd like to use. It has to be a phone rather than my Android tablet, because of portability reasons; I want to take it on the golf course with me, and I want it in my pocket mapping and measuring my Saturday walks.

I wound up with an LG Tribute LS660, set up for a prepaid account with Sprint. I paid $40 for the phone, on sale at Best Buy. In other words, a low price but from a reputable brick-and-mortar store, not eBay or Craigslist. As I said, I didn't care about the phone plan; I just wanted a very portable Android computer. In the future, I may decide to switch from Verizon to Sprint, but I'm in no hurry to do it at the moment; my LG flip phone from Verizon does a perfectly acceptable job as a cell phone.

But in my first couple of hours of playing with the Tribute, it struck me that this tiny gadget is the current heir to the computing legacy I have watched and lived since I was a teenager -- and I was astounded how far we have come. Of course, I knew it intellectually all along, but today's knowledge was visceral, a punch in the gut. So I decided to compare computing benchmarks at three points in time:
  1. In 1961, I had a summer job as a junior engineer for IBM. I was part of the large team that got the 7094 out the door and into the field. The following year, I joined Bell Labs and went to MIT for my Masters degree. These were two of the highest tech organizations around. MIT's computation center proudly boasted an IBM 7094, the ultimate in computing at the time. Bell Labs actually had three: one for each of its major locations.
  2. In 1982, IBM introduced the PC. (Actually, it was a year earlier, but by 1982 many people -- including me -- were in an organization that had one of them.) I became very familiar with its programming and its internals in the 1980s, and the programming and internals of its descendants.
  3. Which brings us to today (2015), and the LG Tribute smartphone. Let's ignore that it also contains a phone, and just see it as a computer.
How about some background on these three computers.

IBM 7094

Yes, computers once looked like that. In fact, a single computer looked like that. That's right; everything in the room comprises one computer.

When it came out at the end of 1961, the 7094 was the biggest, fastest computer around. (With the exception of the "Stretch supercomputer", specially built for the NSA and government nuclear research.) Those tape drives were the offline file storage; you can see tape reels behind the console, waiting to be mounted for a job. A really big installation might have a hard disk unit, but most 7094 comp centers used tape -- and punched cards to input to the tape. All those refrigerator-size appliances taking up the back left of the photo comprise the CPU and the internal memory of the computer.

Only the biggest institutions could afford the dollars, space, and personnel to run a 7094 computer installation.


The IBM Personal Computer sat on a desk. I chose a picture that included a separate phone and modem for comparison, because the LG Tribute includes a phone and a several modems in its small case.

The horizontal slots in the front of the CPU box are floppy-disk drives. The IBM PC could have three quarters of a megabyte of data mounted in its two drives. That was actually quite generous compared with most 1961 computers. But not compared to 1982 mainframes and minicomputers; they tended to have fairly generous disk drives -- "generous" meaning tens or even a few hundreds of megabytes.

But the thing that made the PC special was the "Personal". It sat on your desk, and you were the only one who used it. Nothing like that had ever happened before with a business computer.

LG Tribute LS660

You all know about this. You probably own a smartphone and use it every day. People who wouldn't know a spreadsheet from a do-loop still make very casual use of what is actually an enormously sophisticated piece of computing hardware and software.

Q. What would be the most mind-blowing thing you could say about life today to someone from, say, 1961? (That's when the 7094 first appeared.)

A. I have, in my pocket, a computer that can instantly access the entire accumulated knowledge of mankind. I use it to argue with strangers and look at pictures of cats.

The typical smartphone contains a phone, of course. But it also has several modems: a mobile-data modem, a Wi-Fi modem, and a bluetooth modem. Oh yeah, antennas for each too.

Here is a table of various measures of how the computing world has evolved, using these three checkpoints in time.

IBM 7094
LG Tribute
Size Filled a large business office, more than 1000 sq.ft. Filled most of a desk, more if you had a printer. Easily fits in a shirt pocket.
Price, in
fixed dollars.
$3,000,000 $2,000
(factor of 1/1500)
(factor of 1/50)
Price, in
2015 dollars.
$23,000,000 $5,000
(factor of 1/4600)
(factor of 1/125)
Cycles per second 500 thousand 4.8 million
(factor of 10)
1.2 billion
(factor of 250)
Internal working memory 150 KByte 640 KByte
(factor of 4.3)
1 GByte
(factor of 1600)
Internal file memory 0 0
(Well, maybe 10 MByte if you added the upgrade hard drive)
4 GByte
(factor of 400)
Mountable file memory Magnetic tapes,
just add drives and reels
up to 720 KByte
up to 32 GByte
(factor of 44,000)
Other input/output
  • Punched card input
  • Printer output
  • Keyboard input (mouse later)
  • Text screen (25 lines x 80 characters) or...
  • Graphic screen (320 x 200 pixels)
  • Printer output
  • Touch screen input and output (480 x 800 pixels)
  • Camera
  • Microphone and speaker
  • Wireless connections of various types
  • GPS
  • Intertial position sensors.


Of course, a lot else has changed in the computing environment. Graphical User Interfaces (GUI), the Internet, wireless bandwidth, and new computer languages to mention only a few. But just the the raw numbers in the table are stunning to me.

For the record, I am composing this on a five-year-old desktop computer. Its physical appearance is an update of the IBM PC ("update" meaning things like 22" color monitor, DVD drives instead of floppies). I paid about $600 for it new. And its specs are considerably better than the smartphone for every number. (Quad-core 3GHz processor, 8GByte RAM, 1TeraByte internal drive, 500GByte USB drive for backup.) But the tiny size of the phone, combined with its computing power, is stunning.

Yes, there were computers before the 7094, and there will be more advances beyond the Tribute (there already have been). The trend was there before the 7094, and appears to be continuing into the future. These are just three snapshots of an inexorable evolution.

Last modified  --  Dec 8, 2015