Computers - the universal problem solving machine
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What is a computer?
In a very broad sense computers are a kind of automatic electronic device with an ability to solve various problems. Automatic, because, it can carry out operations on its own. That too, repetitively.
But how does it do so?
To solve a problem a computer needs to first know where the problem lies. This is done by a process called "input". Once this "input" process is complete the "input" message or problem is sent to the brains of the computer to be worked out. When the worked out process is over the result is told back to us through a process called "output". In this sense you can also say a computer is a device that calculates a result ("output") from one or more initial items of information ("input").
However, it sounds too simple to mean a machine that does so many complicated things. In fact, this is an outline of the machine called a computer. There are plenty of other small and big stages that play the real trick in between an input and an output.
To make it clear in terms of the computers you are familiar with, let us be more specific. The key-board in which a message is written, or, the mouse you are to click are both meant for the "input" functions. While the screen, or, monitor, in which you see the results is meant for "output". A printer attached to a computer is a pure "output" device. The part that carries out the main job that is the problem solving, is called the Central Processing Unit, or, the CPU. And you can call it the brain of the computer. Not only it 'solves a problem' or, 'works it out'. It also stores it for future use. And retrieves, or, calls back the same whenever asked for. Based on these functions the CPU is said to be made of three main sections. The control unit - the part that mainly carries out the workings; the arithmetic logical unit(ALU) - a dedicated helping hand for the control unit; and the primary storage place for storing. In addition to this storage place there is yet another place for storage of information. Called secondary storage, it lies (though attached to) outside the CPU. So you see it has so many sections, each specialised in carrying out the intelligent works like reading your problems, processing them for a solution, storing them and finally giving you back the solutions.
Now, doesn't it sound strange for a machine, made up of some lumps of plastics, metal, and tiny looking silicon chips and a mesh of wires?
Yes, it does! After all, these are the kinds of stuff that even your old non-programmable TV set, or radio receiver is made of with. While they cannot act on their own, a computer does.
Again, being a machine, it doesn't have got an organic brain, like human beings.
This is called software. And this is in addition to all those chips and all, also present in other electronic devices.
So how is this possible?
This is because a computer is favored with a special arrangement. This arrangement is meant for backing a computer with an inbuilt logic that guides it throughout. In fact, this inbuilt logic gives necessary instructions. Charts out the course of actions. And also the order in which they are to be done to solve the problems, or, get the result. The problems that may require hundreds, or, thousands of strenuous hours to solve manually. Quite intelligent, isn't it?
Indeed. But this arrangement cannot come just like a magic. And this is where computers need the full support of human brains. The brains that can fix up the logic inside the electronic device to turn it into computer.
To put it simply this special arrangement provided in a computer is called the software. It gives computer a sort of 'brain' to follow certain course of actions backed by reasons. And all the rest of stuff like those chips, plastics, and wires are called the hardware.
While the hardware needs the support of engineering knowledge, it is mainly the mathematical logic on which the software stands. The better the logic, or the more advanced the logic, the better is the ability of a computer to solve problems.
A deeper look into the basics of this logic:
And while talking about computer logic, it is better to refer it as digital logic. Because the backbone of this logic, or the well defined reasoning system, is digits.
So a computer, the digital one that you see around, cannot understand anything unless it is stated in terms of digits. And the digits used here are binary. Binary refers to a two number system as against the 10-digit decimal system that we have been so familiar with since the day we learn counting. Thus any number, can be represented by the binary digits 0 and 1 in the same way it is done with the digits '0' through '9'. And mathematics holds the key to the main concept in the development of the computer. The concept that all information can be represented as sequences of zeros and ones.
Well, why alone this '0's and '1's?
This is because computers are electrically operated. And the basic instruction that any electrical device can act upon, is 'switch on', and, 'switch off'. When switch is on current flows and the device comes to life. When the switch is off, current stops flowing, and the machine turns dead.
Similarly a computer is also supposed to understand and work on the same principle. And this is what the inventors of the computers also thought of. In fact, the values of '0' and '1' are realized in the machine by the presence or absence of electric current. Translated In terms of mathematical logic they can be said to represent false or true, respectively. So based on this principle the entire digital logic of the computer is designed. And computers can record electric impulses coded in the very simple binary system.
And the binary digit, or bit, has become the basic unit of data storage and transmission in a computer system. Simply because of the ease with which these digits help in realizing the two conditions of a running electrical and electronic device.
Well, this is only the very rough view of the way computers work. But there are plenty of other small and not-so-small things that make the computers of today. Let us take a brief look at some of them.
However, before we do that, it is better to take a look at a brief history of computers. It will help us know the way the early computers would work. And also the way they have reached the present stage starting from their earliest ancestors.
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