Chapter 5: The History of IT

IT Structure: The History of IT

IT Structure - Using this Part

This part aims to cover what you might want and need to know about: the kit the contributes to your IT, protecting your investment in IT and complying with good practice, legislation and regulation. You may choose not to read the first chapter - "The History of IT" - but we hope it is interesting, fun and provides a useful context for much else in the book.  

People from most not-for-profit organisations should familiarise themselves with almost all of the material in this part, although the level of detail you will need on the good practice, legislation and regulation will vary with your organisation's size and complexity.  We have tried to tailor the advice to enable not-for-profit organisations of all sizes to apply the requirements sensibly.  

People from very small organisations, i.e. those which have not connected computers with each other or the outside world,  probably don’t need to worry too much about chapter 10 - "Information security".  However, as soon as you do start connecting, then issues raised in that chapter will become more pertinent.

Chapter objectives

In this chapter we shall:

  • Sketch the history of IT in little more than a trice, focusing on some of the people who initiated the IT revolution.
  • Urge you to avoid worrying about the physics and electronics involved unless you are really keen on those subjects.
  • Set that history of IT in context for not-for-profit organisations.

A "one minute history of IT"

Computers have been around for longer than most people realise.  The abacus, the comptometer, the electronic typewriter and the punchcard are all examples of devices used for automating aspects of work.  For those who are interested in the history of science and technology, the history of computing is especially relevant and there are many books on the subject (see Appendix B - Directory).  

For those who have little interest or no interest in such matters, it is possible to become an expert superuser of IT without ever having heard of, for example:

  • Charles Babbage, the 19th century visionary who designed (and to some extent built) a prototype computational machine amazingly close in concept to modern computer design but years before it was practical to produce useful devices.  Babbage was ably assisted by Countess Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter.  Indeed Ada was probably the uncredited brains behind much of this innovation.
  • Alan Turing, whose diverse pioneering work on computer theory in the 1940’s and 50’s was so exhaustive it still inspires further innovation today.  Turing’s achievements also included cryptography (code making and breaking); the breaking of the Enigma Code during the Second World War led to the early development of computers (much like those we use today) and probably shortened the war by months or years.
  • William Shockley, whose lead role in the invention of the transistor enabled not only our modern radio and television sets but also the miniaturisation of computing.  Prior to the transistor, computers (like radios and televisions) used thermionic valves.  Early computers needed thousands of these valves, which made them enormous, hot and inordinately expensive to build and maintain.
  • Gordon Moore, whose Intel corporation has consistently dominated the market for microprocessors, which are the main components of computers, for the last 20 years or so.  Microprocessors are basically chips of silicon engraved in such a way that they comprise thousands, millions or billions of transistors.   In the 1960’s, Gordon Moore estimated that advances in silicon chip technologies would enable the world of computing to double the power and halve the unit cost of computing once every 18 months or so.  This rule of thumb, now known as Moore’s Law, remarkably has held true for 30 to 40 years, should hold true for a further 5 to 10 years and might continue to hold true for longer.
  • Bill Gates, whose Microsoft Corporation has dominated the market for operating systems (the intermediary software that enables the machine to communicate with the user software) for about two decades and the market for office tools for about a decade.  As a result, Mr Gates is now one of the richest man in the world, although the US anti-trust authorities are having a long look at Microsoft.

Do I need to understand any of the physics and electronics stuff?

No.  For the ordinary IT user, the underlying physics and electronics (alluded to above) is even less essential context than the history.  The transistors etched on to the silicon chip are essentially a huge collection of on/off switches.  Computer programmes simply utilise and interpret the output of those switches, using binary (1s and 0s) as the base of calculation to do useful things.  By doing many simple calculations very quickly indeed, and by channelling the power of those calculations in useful ways, computers can be made to perform tasks that are helpful and useful to you.  Computers really are simply sophisticated calculators configured to do the things you recognise as "the things we use computers to do". 

As the physics and electronics boffins get better and better at channelling computational power, the possibilities for making computers friendlier and more useful to you increase.   Until a few years ago, for example, most of us would have been unable to afford sufficient computing power to have Windows images on our screens or speech recognition routines.  Today such tools are affordable to most of us.  You do not need to understand the complex science that lies behind the advances in information technology, but should be aware of Moore's Law (see above).

Historical context for not-for-profit organisations

Not-for-profit organisations tend to think of themselves as followers rather than leaders in the use of IT.  Interestingly enough, though, one of the very first implementations of a large-scale computer system was in a not-for-profit context.  Herman Hollerith designed and built a computational machines for the US Census Office to use for the 1890 census.  Many experts consider this to be the first practical example of a computer implementation (Babbage's "machine" never worked).  There was much criticism at the time, as the census cost some $11.5M, double the cost of the previous (unautomated) census.  However, experts countered that the cost of the 1890 census would have been much higher without automation and that the use of automation had in fact saved some $5M dollars. 

The not-for-profit sector took very much a back seat in the history of IT after the heady Hollerith days, ceding the centre stage to big business, defence and space exploration (arguably not-for-profit, perhaps) until relatively recently.  By the 1960's and 1970's, many larger businesses were using IT for back office tasks such as payroll and financial ledgers.  A few larger not-for-profit organisations similarly started to use IT in this way, often through bureau services.   Some bureau providers spotted specific opportunities for business in the not-for-profit sector, such as providing donor recording systems to help with fundraising or membership systems for membership-based not-for-profit organisations.

In the 1980's two things started to happen concurrently which started to bring IT into the spotlight for not-for-profit organisations:

  • The sector started to grow substantially and the bigger charities started to become yet larger and more corporate in their approach.
  • Computing started to become economically viable for smaller and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) for the first time, initially with the advent of minicomputers and especially with the advent of personal computing (e.g. the PET, the BBC Acorn/Micro and, in 1981, the IBM-PC) and PC networks.

As with SMEs, not-for-profit organisations tended to focus at first on administrative functions such as accounting and payroll, plus donor and membership records.  Specialist voluntary sector oriented suppliers emerged, many of whom tried to cover many aspects of administration, not just the voluntary sector bits.  Many not-for-profit organisations struggled long and hard with ghastly financial systems which "came as part of the suite" with the donor recording system they wanted and there were still many not-for-profit organisations using bureau services well into the 1990's. Some organisations are still struggling along with ghastly old ledgers and the like, although the imperative to upgrade to avoid Year 2000 (Y2K) problems drove out many of the old dinosaur applications in the late 1990's.

Strangely, the advent of Application Service Providers (ASPs - see chapter 3) in the commercial sector has raised the notion once again that an approach very similar to the bureau style (using a third party to look after your computing and application needs), once so popular with the not-for-profit sector, might be back in fashion.  This time around, it might be smaller organisations that take the lead with the ASP model.  This interesting area of development is discussed, in context, in several chapters of this book.

Fad and fashions come and go in the IT sector. Nevertheless, it is clear that IT has relentlessly invaded the not-for-profit sector since the 1980's and is without question here to stay for all but the smallest organisations.


  • You do not really need to understand the history of IT to be able to enjoy the benefits of IT, but it is fun, interesting and useful context.
  • You do not really need to understand the physics and electronics, (although it is also fun and interesting), but it does help if you appreciate that the progress scientists are making look set to continue to improve price/performance of IT for many years to come.
  • Not-for-profit organisations don’t tend to do groundbreaking things with IT, although the sector can boast the first genuinely practical IT implementation in the form of the Hollerith US Census of 1890.
  • Fads and fashions come and go, but since the 1980's IT has relentlessly invaded the not-for-profit sector and is here to stay.