A keen look at groundbreaking inventions in ICT

Many of these inventions in information and communication technology have occurred in the last 55 years

September 12, 2020 07:41 pm | Updated 07:45 pm IST

During my school days, a computer was a machine occupying a garage space, used only by engineers. Now, within 50 years, I hold it in my pocket as a mobile smart phone, as do 50 crore other Indians! How did this revolution happen?

Do you know who invented such ground-breaking inventions in Information and Communication Technology (or ICT)? This is the theme of a remarkably informative and educative book recently authored by V. Rajaraman, who taught at the Supercomputer Education and Research Centre, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, and published by PHI Learning, Delhi.

In this book, Prof. Rajaraman lists the history of 15 ground-breaking inventions and innovators who have made these hand-held fast, versatile computers possible. I believe that with computer-based education having become a part of the New Education Policy (NEP), it is vital that students and teachers get to learn the story of these 15 inventions and the innovators, not just as a part of history and development of these innovators, but as an inspiration for the future.

As per Prof. Rajaraman: (1) The idea should be novel; (2) It should fulfil a need; (3) It should improve our productivity; (4) It should change the way in which computing is done and computers are used; (5) It should lead to innovations; (6) The invention must have a long life and be continuously used and not be transient; (7) It should create new industries that lead to further innovations and may, as a consequence, disrupt some old industries and (8) It should transform the way we live and thereby result in societal changes. It is not necessary that a ground-breaking invention satisfy all these; it is enough if it meets a majority of these.

Recent history

Interestingly, many of these inventions too have occurred in the last 55 years — starting from the computer language FORTRAN in 1957 to Deep Learning in 2011. A brief history and description of these, and the innovators associated with them is given in his book. We will take up the first seven innovations here and the rest in the next article.

Programming languages

The first is FORTRAN or Formula Translation, developed by John Backus and his team in 1957. This translated the binary language (0 and 1) of digital computers into everyday language that can be understood and used by all, using the IBM computers and later by other computers as well. (I remember how Prof. Rajaraman taught FORTRAN to all of us students and faculty at IIT Kanpur, and several lakhs of others elsewhere through his lectures and books). FORTRAN made computers usable by non-professionals too- to start programming and solve problems. Others designed similar programming languages for specific uses, but FORTRAN is still the language used by scientists.

The second is the introduction of what are called integrated circuits or ICs. Until they were invented, signals were amplified using vacuum tubes that were large and became hot during use. When John Bardeen and colleagues invented transistors way back in 1947, they reduced the size, and power consumption of amplifiers.

This caused a revolution in information technology, because using these, Jack Kilby (and a few months later, Robert Noyce) could actually make a fully integrated complex electronic circuit on a single silicon chip.

The third innovation discussed is databases and how to manage them in an organised fashion. For example, our own Aadhaar Card, contains in it a variety of data (age, sex, age, address, fingerprints and such), put together in a compact fashion. Such a database system is what is referred to as relational database management system, or RDBMS. Earlier, these files were stored in magnetic tapes, then in floppy discs and now in CDs and pen drives.

LAN and Ethernet

The fourth is what is known as local area networks (or LANs), introduced first by Norman Abramson’s group in Hawaii, where they used a wireless broadcast system called ALOHA net to interconnect computers across the islands to share a broadcast medium. Then Robert Metcalfe and David Boggs modified this protocol, and put together what they called Ethernet, which has allowed multiple computers to share and exchange messages and files through cable connections. We now use LANs in the office to transfer hard-copies into e-files, and to connect various departments in a University.

The fifth innovation is the development of personal computers, which has allowed us to work and study from our homes. The first person to design a personal computer was Steve Wozniak in the mid-1970s and brilliantly marketed by Steve Jobs. By 1981, PCs began selling like hotcakes, and by the late 1980s, Apple, IBM and its clones captured the market, with Microsoft supplying the operating system.

To open your phone or a computer, you need a passcode, which is secure and known only to you. And when a bank or a sender sends you a ‘confidential’ message, they too send a secure passcode (e.g., OTP). This aspect is what is known as an encryption system (allows secrecy between the sender and receiver). This public key cryptography is the sixth Innovation.

Your computer now has built-in programs that not only allow you to take photographs, movies and send them using applications likeWhatsApp, Facetime and such. This has come about thanks to the seventh Innovation called computer graphics, which Prof. Rajaraman discusses in his book in detail. In addition, he discusses in detail compression of multimedia data that has allowed exchanging audios and videos over the Internet.


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