As you stare at your screen, reading the illuminated letters, whatever device you're using is working a 9 to 5 to have taken you to this point. In between the upkeep of the browser, connecting to the internet, and getting you to this web page, it's gone through a plethora of different instructions. So how does it work, and where does it start?
Sitting deep in COVID quarantine, I had just scored my first job. As my mom still had to work, I was tasked with babysitting as we got lost in useless Zoom meetings. With pay of $5 a day, I had found myself with a hefty total of $425. Now, I had never had over $100 at once before that point, so I was in a dizzying excitement as I tried to figure out how to spend it. Cue the lightbulb over my head as I get the perfect use of it, a computer. Now we all know that in that economy, $425 dollars wouldn’t get you anything more than a potato that if you're lucky can run minesweeper. However, I had a way around this: build my own computer. So I braced myself, said a prayer, then was pulled into the deep dive of computers, that you will find yourself in now.
I - The Parts
The anatomy of a computer is a complex system, with so many different parts and abilities. Just like humans, different computer models have different jobs. For the sake of both of our sanities, I will only get into the common computer architecture you will need. The personal computer. This is the system that you’d be most familiar with, because it is what desktops use.
Central Processing Unit - Arguably the most important component in the computer, it is the main processor. The Central Processing Unit (CPU) is what runs the whole machine. It follows instructions laid out by computer programs, and tells the other parts what to do.
Random Access Memory - Also referred to as RAM, the Random Access Memory is where a computer can store short-term data. Similar to short-term memory in our head, the RAM stores information it’s dealing with in the moment, and if it isn’t needed, this data is scraped. Computer programs will store information such as variable values within the RAM.
Motherboard - The motherboard, as similarly suggested in the name, is like the mother of the computer. It is the main circuit board that holds the parts together and transfers power between them. The pre-mentioned parts are plugged into designated slots in the motherboard, helping with communication between them.
Power Supply - The power supply helps transport electricity from the outlet on your wall to your computer. It takes the electricity from the outlet, which usually regulates at a voltage of 230, and turns it into a low-voltage direct current. After the conversion it sends the power on its way, letting the motherboard decide its next part in its journey.
Storage - The storage is where files and other data is stored in a computer for permanent usage. Storage is mainly stored in 2 different ways. The first is through a Hard Disk Drive (HDD), where all the information is stored on a spinning disk that the computer will read from. This was for a while the main way to store data on a computer, but it now has a new competitor. A solid-state drive (SSD), is a newer more complex form of storing data. SSD is preferred in modern computers due to the fact that it is faster than HDD.
II - The Instructions
We are all familiar with the classic 1’s and 0’s that build the foundation of our computers. Yet, most people (or maybe just me) didn’t know how that worked. How can simple 1’s and 0’s run my favorite Netflix TV shows?
As previously mentioned, a CPU is what runs the computer programs through a set of instructions. Those instructions are executed through machine code, commonly known as binary.
Binary code is a way for us as humans to tell a computer what to do. CPU’s are built with many electric switches, which could be on or off. This can be manipulated to communicate and represent different things through binary. A computer will read a 1, and turn the switch on, or a 0, and turn it off.
This can be used to represent different numbers through the binary number system. In the system, the first number spot starting at 1, increases by a power of 2 each time. This can then be used to represent any integer you can dream of. For example, the number 9 would be 1001. The first digit has the value of 1, and the last digit has the value of 8. That means the sequence 1001 has the value of 9.
With this, numbers can be used to represent letters, colors, and more, allowing us to run anything through 1’s and 0’s
Now imagine you are one of the first developers of a computer, programming through 1’s and 0’s. Sure you can do very basic operations through that, but it can get repetitive, confusing, and boring. So, what would you do?
Well, they developed a new language, called assembly (ASM). This brings in the concept of abstraction, where computer developers and scientists add new layers and levels to the building and programming of computers.
ASM is a simpler way of programming, because now you get to work with actual words. Yippee! Don’t think that makes it easy. Through assembly you now change and manipulate different registers to different values.
Doesn’t sound easy. So, through time even more layers come into play with more programming languages building on top of eachother. Think of it as a reverse pyramid. Binary at the bottom, with easier languages building up from there.
III - Conclusion
Now you know the basic operations of how computers work. it gets way more complex from here, so don’t think you can go out and work at Microsoft after reading this. Only scratching the surface of the complicated systems that are used to run your computer, you might want to go digging a little deeper.
For the research that went into this piece, I had fallen down so many rabbit holes of specific types of operations, yet I only have so little time (due to my procrastination) to write to you. So as I finish these final words, and purge my browser of the numerous tabs I have open, I hope you have a better understanding of your computers.