An Accidental Acquisition
Last year I acquired a new Smartphone. The new acquisition was not out of choice but rather out of necessity. I (still not sure what happened) had destroyed my other smart phone when it fell in water after I left it on a window ledge in the house. I still wonder how a phone decided to take a leap into a pail filled with water.
However, the ‘usual suspects’, my two kids fervently claimed innocence and I had to accept full responsibility. Looking at their innocent 5 and 9 year old faces I came up with an explanation that someone must have called and the phone vibrated itself off the ledge onto the pail. Anyway, the phone spent about two hours in the pail and I deemed there was no use trying to fix it. I gave it to my young kids as a play thing.
The kid inquisitor
My nine year old kid is obsessed with opening any electrical device that comes to him, a fault that has earned him my wrath several times. The new gift, the spoiled smart phone, was quickly torn apart and I mean literally torn apart because he used every crude mechanical trick to pry it open. After opening the phone, the questions started coming. The kid wanted to know how a device with such few and small components could manage to work like the bulky PC in his room.
Since I do not use a desktop, I have declared and even demonstrated several times to my kids that a Smartphone is just a smaller version of a PC with similar or even superior functionality. As a result of my bragging, I had no choice but to come up with a simple way of explaining the evolution in computer hardware that had reduced the size but increased the functionality of computer hardware.
The historic explanation
I started by introducing the young boy to the concept of system on a chip (SOC). When I saw the bewilderment in his eyes, I realized that I had to go back several years back in the evolution of computer hardware. I decided to classify the various integral computer ages or changes in terms of generations. For the first generation computers, I explained that the first computer, which was created in the 1940’s was really big, I told him it was the size of his room.
This computer used vacuum tubes which acted as amplifiers (make weak signals stronger), switches (start and stop electricity flow), and also as computer memory. For the second generation computers, I explained how the transistor replaced the vacuum tubes in the late 1950s. The transistor was the first device designed to act as both a transmitter, converting sound waves into electronic waves, and resistor, controlling electronic current.
Incidentally, by replacing bulky and unreliable vacuum tubes with transistors, computers could now perform the same functions, using less power and space. Then I proceeded to narrate how the integrated circuit (IC) was introduced in the 1960s. The IC placed the previously separated transistors, resistors, capacitors and all the connecting wiring onto a single crystal (or ‘chip’) made of semiconductor material. These third generation computers increased the functionality and reduced the size of computers considerably. Fourth generation computers were introduced in the 1970s with the introduction of microprocessors.
Since then, the computer has evolved based on the microprocessors aimed at reducing size and increasing functionality. Hence, our current Smartphone’s and tablets use the SOC technology and instead of a motherboard, the SOC integrates everything: processor, graphics processor, RAM, interfaces like USB, interfaces for audio, and more onto a single board. Although I am not sure he got everything, the boy has since stopped pestering me with this question.