Chapter 1 - What Is A Computer?

First, what is not a computer? The $10 calculator you can get at the local variety store is not a computer. That super sewing machine that Aunt Mary just got is not a computer. The noisy teletypewriter in the Realtor's office is not a computer. The spinning tapes you see on TV are not a computer. There may be computers related to these things, but what you see is not the computer. What is?

A computer is a device which automatically performs an arbitrary sequence of operations on Data. The teletypewriter in the Realtor's office automatically performs a sequence of operations on data, but it is not an arbitrary sequence; you cannot cause it to perform a different sequence of operations tomorrow. The pocket calculator performs an arbitrary sequence of operations on data, but it is not automatic; you have to push a button for each operation. Note, however, that the more expensive "programmable" calculators in the strictest sense are computers, because you can set up a sequence of steps for it to follow, and it will do so automatically. The sewing machine can automatically perform a sequence of operations, but it operates on cloth and thread, not on data. What then is Data?

Data are the answers to questions. The answer may be numerical (Question: What is the result of adding 7 to 3, then dividing by 8? Answer: 1.25. Question: What is the fourth counting number? Answer: 4.) or logical (Question: If all men are mortal and Socrates is a man, is Socrates mortal? Answer: True.) or the answer may be a sequence of letters of the alphabet (Question: How is my name spelled? Answer: "Tom".). The answer may be long (Question: How did Columbus come to America? Answer: In three ships, the Pinta, the Nina, and the Santa Maria, which were paid for by the Spanish royal government in 1492, etc...) or very short (Question: How many apples are in an empty paper bag? Answer: 0.). A single Datum may be the answer to several questions at once (Questions: Who was the 38th President of the United States? What is the name of the second largest automobile maker in the world? How do you cross a shallow stream when there is no bridge? Answer to all three: Ford.) or it may be the answer to a question nobody thought of asking: (Question: ? Answer: "@+!*=".). It is data if there could be at least one question for which these are the answers.

When the computer is not actually operating on it, the data is kept in memory. This is just as you might keep all the answers you know in your mind's memory. We often say the data is stored in the memory. For convenience, the memory is organized into a number of words, all the same size. A word may contain one answer or it may contain several small answers; large answers often require many words in memory. The smallest answer we can possibly have in a computer is either a "yes" or a "no". This is the same size as 0 or 1, True or False, Hot or Cold, or any other answer to a question which has only two possible answers. The amount of memory needed to store one of these smallest answers is called a bit. Each word in the computer memory is some fixed number of bits, say 8 or 16 or 60; the size of the computer word is determined by the person who designed the computer.

Most computers have several different kinds of memory. One kind is called RAM and will have hundreds or (usually) thousands of words. Another kind is called file storage and may have a million or more words, but it is harder for the computer to use this memory; more about this later. A third type of memory which most computers have is very easy for the computer to use. It is called registers, and there are usually only a few words of these. Often we tell computers apart by the number and kinds of registers they have.

Among the computer's registers, one (or sometimes several) is particularly important, because it holds the answer the computer is working on at any particular instant. Such a register is usually called an accumulator. It is normally a single word in the computer, and almost everything the computer is able to do to its data, it does to the data in the accumulator. I will mention some other useful registers shortly.

With thousands of words of data in memory (and we usually mean RAM when we say "memory"), one very important question to be answered is, "Where is the word I want?" We answer this question by numbering the words in memory, starting with zero (this turns out to be easier for the computer than starting at one). The number of each word is called its address, something like the number on your house. Obviously, every answer stored in memory has another answer associated with it, namely, "What is its address?" Often there are special registers in the computer that are particularly suited to holding this kind of data, that is, the addresses of other data stored in memory. We sometimes call these address registers. The computer is able to operate on the data in the address registers also.

Another very important kind of data in the computer memory answers the question, "What operation will the computer perform next?" This is important because we control the sequence of operations the computer performs by the proper arrangement of this particular kind of data. Each datum which answers the question, "What operation should the computer perform?" is called an Instruction, because it "instructs" the computer in its task. The whole sequence of instructions is called a Program. Of course there is an address register that points to the next instruction the computer will obey. This register is called the Program Counter or PC. Notice that the only difference between the data which you consider to be the answers to your questions and the data which are the answers to the computer's questions about what to do next is this: Who is doing the asking? When the computer asks, "What next?" the answer that comes out of memory is, by definition, an instruction. When the computer asks for data to operate on according to your program, the answer that comes out of memory is not an instruction, but "real data". (People usually prefer to say that the program is not data so we can use the word "data" to mean the answers to our questions, not those of the computer.)

When a computer is operating normally, we say it is running. It continually goes through the following pair of steps: First, the Program Counter is used to address an instruction; that is, the computer looks at the word in memory whose address is in the PC. This is called the instruction fetch. If the instruction occupies more than one word, all the words of this instruction are fetched. The PC is incremented (added to) by the number of words in the instruction, so that it now points to (i.e. addresses) the next sequential instruction in the program. Second, the computer performs or executes the operation specified by the instruction just fetched. The computer repeats this fetch-execute cycle for the next instruction, and so on, many thousands and millions of times.

The continuous repetition of the fetch-execute cycles in the computer may seem a little monotonous, until you realize that the instructions being executed are quite varied, and their sequence can make for programs having widely differing results. There are, for example, instructions to copy a datum from someplace in memory into the accumulator and others to copy the datum in the accumulator into some memory word; we call these loads and stores. There are instructions to add data to or subtract data from the accumulator, or to perform certain logical operations on it (which we will describe in detail in Chapter 5). There are instructions to manipulate the data in the other registers. Perhaps most important, there are instructions which can change the contents of the Program Counter; we call these branches. Chapter 3 covers these in some detail, but for now it is important to realize that the computer is able to alter its own sequence of program execution. Finally, there are instructions which interact with the outside world.

Up to now we have not mentioned how data gets into or out of the computer. I suppose it would still be a computer if it had no way to pass data out to the rest of the world or to accept new data to operate on, but it would not be worth much (a few of the really fast super-computers work this way, but they cheat). We mortals need what we call Input/Output or I/O.

Input refers to the way data gets into the computer. Usually the computer will have special registers which can be loaded with data from some external source, and perhaps some instructions by which the computer is able to copy this data into its internal memory. Output is the reverse operation: Some type of instruction enables the computer to copy data from its internal memory into special output registers, which the outside world is able to examine. Often these special Input and Output registers are called I/O ports. Input might come from a human being (such as some buttons or switches or a typewriter-like keyboard), or it may come from special equipment which operates the file storage. Similarly, output may go to lights for humans to look at, or perhaps to control the picture on a TV set; it may also go to the file storage.

Most file storage, as I mentioned earlier, is more difficult for the computer to use than its internal memory (RAM and registers). This is because it tends to be relatively slow, and the computer must pick off (on input) or send (on output) the words one at a time, at the right speed. If the file consists of magnetic tape (such as used with audio cassette systems) the speed may also depend on the human who is operating the controls.

In summary, then, we have seen that a computer consists of some kind of control mechanism (we really did not talk much about it, only assumed that it existed), and a memory consisting of registers and RAM, and some I/O. Perhaps there may be some file memory attached to the I/O. The computer operates on some of the data in memory, according to instructions in another part of the memory called the program.

In the next chapter we will look at a particular computer, and see how it fits with this generalized picture.

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* (A Short Course In Programming is Copyright 1980 by Tom Pittman, and is reproduced in TinyELF's help book with the author's permission. Visit Tom's website.)