First Generation - 1940-1956: Vacuum Tubes
First generation computers relied on machine language, the lowest-level programming language understood by computers, to perform operations, and they could only solve one problem at a time. Input was based on punched cards and paper tape, and output was displayed on printouts.
Second Generation - 1956-1963: Transistors
Second-generation computers moved from cryptic binary machine language to symbolic, or assembly, languages, which allowed programmers to specify instructions in words. High-level programming languages were also being developed at this time, such as early versions of COBOL and FORTRAN. These were also the first computers that stored their instructions in their memory, which moved from a magnetic drum to magnetic core technology.
Third Generation - 1964-1971: Integrated Circuits
Transistors were miniaturized and placed on silicon chips, called semiconductors, which drastically increased the speed and efficiency of computers. Computers for the first time became accessible to a mass audience because they were smaller and cheaper than their predecessors.
Fourth Generation - 1971-Present: MicroprocessorsThe microprocessor brought the fourth generation of computers, as thousands of integrated circuits were built onto a single silicon chip. What in the first generation filled an entire room could now fit in the palm of the hand. The Intel 4004 chip, developed in 1971, located all the components of the computer - from the central processing unit and memory to input/output controls - on a single chip.
As these small computers became more powerful, they could be linked together to form networks, which eventually led to the development of the Internet. Fourth generation computers also saw the development of GUIs, the mouse and handheld devices.
Fifth Generation - Present and Beyond: Artificial IntelligenceFifth generation computing devices, based on artificial intelligence, are still in development, though there are some applications, such as voice recognition, that are being used today. The use of parallel processing and superconductors is helping to make artificial intelligence a reality. Quantum computation and molecular and nanotechnology will radically change the face of computers in years to come. The goal of fifth-generation computing is to develop devices that respond to natural language input and are capable of learning and self-organization.