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How Much Memory Did the First Computers Have?

By Derek Schauland
Updated May 16, 2024
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Memory is the lifeblood of many computers manufactured today. The Operating Systems and other applications created to enhance user experience and provide instant access to word processing and Internet browsers require increasing amounts of memory to create the user experience to which many of us are accustomed.

This was not always the case; however, the first computers were often very large and had minimal processing capability. The input mechanism was a series of paper cards which the user had to punch holes in to represent the data the computer was to process. These early computers were built to work on specific problems or solve certain types of equations and not much more.

The first computers used punch cards for input and had very limited memory for processing. The average memory in the early computers was between three and forty five kilobits. Memory was used to store data in the processing of linear equations, and the results were then printed in binary.

When compared to the computers available today, the early computers do not seem very technologically advanced, but at the time they were created these first computers were engineering masterpieces. Many of the concepts created when building early computers are still in use in modern computing technology.

The Atanasoff-Berry Computer, credited with being the very first computer, introduced three concepts — using binary digits to represent all data, processing calculations with electronics rather than mechanical parts, and separate processing and storage — that are used in computers available today. The ABC had a whopping 3000 bits of memory which allowed it to process sixty items at one time. Other early computers had more memory, some has high as forty five kilobits, which allowed them to process several more words of data in a shorter amount of time increasing the overall processing speed of the system.

The memory in the early computers was one of the only small things about them, compared to what we have available today. The size of these early computers was very large, usually as big as a desk or even a room.

Over the last fifty to sixty years, the technology introduced in the first computers has become overshadowed by start buttons, word processors, and wireless phones that do everything from make calls to surf the Internet with seemingly endless gigabits of memory available. Without the first computers and their ability to make simple calculations, the technology we use today might not be as advanced as it has become.

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Discussion Comments

By ronburg44 — On Feb 10, 2011

I remember having a 486 S X Computer with 8MB of Ram. It also had a 66 Megahertz Processor. It was top of the line at it's time. Compared the the systems today it's laughable.

Sometimes I want to get an old system just so I can use the OS to run vintage games and software. I wouldn't have to rely on emulation and I would achieve proper program installation.

By anon22532 — On Dec 05, 2008

My first computer was a TRS 80 COCO (color computer) by Radio Shack, it had 16K Extended, and used a regular tape recorder as a hard drive. I purchased it in 1979.

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