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How do computers work?

There is an interesting anecdote about Thomas Watson who headed IBM in the 1940s. He reportedly said the world does not need more than five computers. Little did he know how wrong he would be! Today we live in a digital world where computers rule. Computers and computing devices are present everywhere. From media to television, from the stock market to colleges; computers are used everywhere. The introduction of the Personal Computer revolutionized the use of computers across the world.

Have you ever wondered how computers work? You may have wondered how computers work so fast and how they do what you want.

The Computer

A computer is a device that computes. It is an electronic device that helps in processing data to convert it into meaningful information. This processing is done based on instructions that are given in a program. There are two aspects to computers – hardware and software.

Computer Hardware

Hardware refers to the physical parts of the computers. This is what we see in front of us. The earliest computers were huge and were the size of a building. Thanks to the growth of technology known as VLSI (Very Large Scale Integration), computer chips were reduced to the size of a postage stamp. This has made the use of laptops popular. Whether you use a personal computer or a laptop, the basic hardware is the same.

A computer has the following hardware:

  1. Input device: You input your data or commands to the computer through this device. The most common input device is the keyboard that you use to type text. The mouse is another input device that you use to operate your computer/laptop. Laptops have touchpads that you can use just like a mouse. A webcam is a device that allows you to take photographs and capture video from your computer. Microphones on your laptop can be used to record sound. Joysticks can be connected to your computer helping you play games.
  2. Output devices: The output device helps you to see the output of your computing operation. The most common output device is the screen or monitor where you see text, graphics, and videos displayed. A printer is an output device that converts what is on the screen into printed form that you can print on paper or other media. Speakers are devices that provide output in the form of sound.
  3. CPU: This is the core of your computer that actually does the computing. CPU is the Central Processing Unit that contains the devices that makes your computer run. It has two main components:
    1. Processor: The processor refers to the device that processes data. These are what are popularly called as computer chips. They are present on a physical platform called the motherboard.
    2. Storage: This is the device to store data and information on your computer/laptop. It stores data that you input into the computer and stores the output, which could be a video, document, audio, or an image. Storage can be on the computer’s memory that is not permanent and holds data as long as the computer is switched on. A hard disk is a device that stores data permanently on your computer. Apart from the memory in your computer, you have external memory devices like flash drives and external disks to store information.

Computer Software

Software is a collection of programs, where the program is a set of instructions that tell the computer what to do. These programs may be hardwired on to the computer’s motherboard. They may also be stored in the computer’s memory. Software is generally classified as:

  1. Operating software: This refers to software that helps you start your computer and operate it. It is an interface between you and the hardware. Windows is one of the most popular operating software. It launches itself when you switch on your computer and allows you to interface with the computer.
  2. Application software: As the name suggests, this is software meant for a particular application. A word processing software helps you type words or text and save it as a document. A video editing software helps you transfer recorded videos to your computer and edit it to add special effects. Accounting software helps you to manage your accounting and bookkeeping work using your computer.
  3. Utilities: These are tools that are helpful in managing your computer. For example, an anti-virus software ensures that no viruses or malicious programs can affect your computer.

How It Works?

Now that you understand what the computer has, it will easy to understand how it works. Computers work using input that is converted to output. Let’s see how it happens. You may want to use your computer to draw a picture. You use the mouse like a pen to draw on your screen. You use the keyboard to give a title to your drawing. You use the mouse and the keyboard to provide input to the computer. The output is the drawing that is displayed on the screen.You can even print this drawing if you wish.

The software is what helps you draw using your computer (e.g.: Paint). It contains instructions that allow the computer to translate the movement of your mouse into a drawing that is displayed on the screen. Your drawing is stored in the computer’s memory as you work. If you want it to be stored permanently, you can save it. This will save the drawing in the form of a file on the hard disk of your computer, where it will remain stored.

A computer thus uses the input you provide and converts it into output through software. The processor in the computer is what drives it and runs the programs. How fast a computer works depends on the processor speed.

This, in a nutshell, is how the computer works. It is simple but involves many processes that happen in the background.