History of operating systems

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The history of computer operating systems recapitulates to a degree the recent history of computer hardware.

Operating systems (OSes) provide a set of functions needed and used by most application programs on a computer, and the linkages needed to control and synchronize computer hardware. On the first computers, with no operating system, every program needed the full hardware specification to run correctly and perform standard tasks, and its own drivers for peripheral devices like printers and punched paper card readers. The growing complexity of hardware and application programs eventually made operating systems a necessity.

Contents

Background

The earliest computers lacked any form of operating system. Each user had sole use of the machine and would arrive armed with program and data, often on punched paper cards and magnetic or paper tape. The program would be loaded into the machine, and the machine would be set to work until the program completed or crashed. Programs could generally be debugged via a control panel using toggle switches and panel lights. It is said that Alan Turing was a master of this on the early Manchester Mark 1 machine, and he was already deriving the primitive conception of an operating system from the principles of the Universal Turing machine.

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