Have you noticed how, as time goes on and technology advances, things seem to keep getting smaller and smaller? That’s especially true with that machine we call the “computer.”

What exactly is a computer? That’s not always an easy question to answer.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines a computer as “a programmable usually electronic device that can store, retrieve, and process data.” Others think a computer is anything that transforms information in a meaningful way.

For thousands of years, people have tried to improve their lives by inventing machines to make certain tasks easier. Some people believe a simple mechanical device called an “abacus” was one of the earliest forms of a computer.

Ancient peoples used the abacus to perform simple calculations. Archaeologists have found evidence that the ancient Greeks used the abacus as early as the 5th century B.C.

“Modern” computers were developed much more recently. The first modern electronic computer — known as the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer or ENIAC — became operational in 1946.

ENIAC was created for the U.S. Army. Weighing more than 30 tons, ENIAC took up as much space as some houses (1,800 square feet).

Since ENIAC, computers have become much smaller and much more powerful. While ENIAC could perform 5,000 addition problems per second, many of today’s laptop computers weigh just a few pounds and can perform several billion operations per second.

As powerful as they are, modern laptops are slow compared to modern supercomputers. A new Titan supercomputer being built for the U.S. Department of Energy is set to become the world’s fastest computer. Its creators claim it will be able to perform 20,000 trillion calculations per second.

Today, we rely on computers for all sorts of things. Parents routinely use computers at work. Kids use computers in the classroom. Many homes now have multiple computers.

Today’s computers keep getting smaller and smaller. Large desktop computers gave way to laptops. Laptops have evolved into a wide variety of even smaller computing devices, such as netbooks and tablet computers.

Many people even carry computers with them everywhere they go. Do you know someone who owns a smartphone?

Smartphones — cellular telephones with advanced computing capabilities — fit easily into a pocket and allow their users to make telephone calls, surf the Internet and conduct business on the go.

So what’s the smallest computer available today? It’s right around the corner.

Today’s computer manufacturers are constantly producing newer and smaller models at a rate too fast to keep up with. Whatever is smallest today will probably be replaced with something even smaller tomorrow!


19 Join the Discussion

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  1. I liked how the writer said how small computers have gotten. Also I like how she included why they have gotten much smaller. I agree with the writer said about computers have gotten much smaller lately. Back then why were the computers so huge and big?

    • Hi, JB! Thank you for letting us know what you liked about this Wonder of the Day®!

      Advances in technology help take big, slow, clunky things, and make them smaller, faster and more efficient! Did you know that back when computers were so huge, they were the actually advanced technology for their time? That is the only way scientists and engineers knew how to make computers back then, but those huge computers where a BIG step up from having to do all those calculations by hand! :-)

  2. Dear Wonderopolis,

    Today we wondered about computers because in our read aloud book, Out of My Mind, by Sharon Draper, the main character who has cerebral palsy, gets a new computer that talks for her! It will take her thoughts and transform them into words for the first time!

    We were agreeing that computers have transformed so much over time that many of us have multiple in our house! We wonder if ever there were multiple abacus’ in houses too at some point? An abacus, we learned was the first version of a modern day computer used in the 5th century.

    Also, we don’t mean to be persnickety, but we would love to see a wonder about technology used for disabled people too.

    Thanks for making us wonder!

    Team Clark

    • We think a future Wonder about the different types of technology available for disabled people sounds like a GREAT idea, Team Clark! We are proud of you guys for WONDERing even more and empathizing with disabled people after you all explored Wonder #396 about prosthetics! We like the WONDERing you did about computers and the abacus, too! You guys ROCK! :-)

  3. Hi,

    I never really thought that computers get smaller and smaller as they evolve, I thought the computers would get bigger.

    Wouldn’t it be hard to see words or use your fingers and get the right button you want?

    I also thought the abacus looked cool, I never knew it was used in the 5th century B.C.!

    I also thought the “Do Woodchucks Really Chuck Wood” wonder of the week was really informational I learned a lot from it.

    Thanks for making me WONDER,

    Team Clark 19

    • Hello, Team Clark 19! Thanks so much for leaving us this COOL comment! We’re glad you learned some great new facts about computers! It’s FUN to think that one computer used to take up a whole room, and now we can hold one in our hand! Technology is really AWESOME! Thanks for letting us know you liked the Woodchuck Wonder, too! :-)

  4. WOW THAT WAS AMAZING who knew a computer would get so small that was pretty cool I just wonder were it came from.

    Your Friend

    • Griffin, you have been a champion WONDERer today! We’re very proud of you– and we hope to see you again soon! Until tomorrow… keep on WONDERing! :)

  5. I did not think there was a computer that weighed 30 tons and took up 180 square feet was the 30 ton computer the heaviest computer ever made?

    • Isn’t it incredible to compare the computers we use today to the ones we WONDERed about? 30 TONS- YIKES! :)

      Thanks for sharing your comments about the first computers, Logan and Adam! We bet your family members who are older than you can tell you about how technology has changed as they grew up! :)

  6. I can’t believe that people come up with this kind of things, It looks like a phone but all I can say is it’s definitely a computer!

    • Thanks for WONDERing with us today, Alyssia and Eriana! We Wonder if you can think of any other electronics that function like computers? We sure have had fun learning all about cool technology and inventions with you today. Thanks for sharing your comments! :)

    • Great Wonder Question, Nate! We’re not sure, since this technology changes so rapidly. Thanks for WONDERing with us today! :-)

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Have you ever wondered…

  • What is the smallest computer?
  • When were the earliest computers developed?
  • How big were the first computers?

Wonder Gallery

Try It Out

How wired is your world? Have you ever given much thought to what your life would be like without computers?

Grab a pencil and paper, and go on a tour of your house. What computers do you find? Think beyond just the desktop computers or laptops that may be at home.

Your family car probably has one or more computers in it. What about smartphones? Video games? Digital video recorders? Satellite television receivers? Microwaves?

Make a list of all the computers in your house, and then imagine what life would be like without these amazing machines. Can you imagine it? Could you live like your parents evidently did back in the Stone Age?

When you’re finished, make a decision to consciously unplug for a bit. Grab a friend or family member, and leave all the electronic gadgets behind for a while.

Go for a walk. Share a meal together. Sit and talk. Enjoy the simple pleasures of real human interaction for a change. You’ll be glad you did!


Still Wondering

Visit Science NetLinks’ Metal Minds resource to explore the basics of how a robot follows commands to carry out a simple task.


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