A computer terminal is the hardware used to enter, retrieve, and display electronic data. While many people think of the modern day desktop or laptop computer that is positioned at a workstation as being a terminal, these devices are only the latest in terminal types that have been used over the years. With the advent of the computers of the 1940s and 1950s, the concept of a work station that made it possible to feed information into the database, as well as retrieve information based on queries, the original concept of the computer terminal came into being.
One of the earliest examples of this type of electromechanical hardware was the common teleprinter. While various makes and models varied somewhat in design, most included a keyboard that looked a great deal like a typewriter. This typing station was attached to the computing system that housed the stored data. By using the keyboard to enter a query, and then hitting a specific key to begin the search, the system would locate the answer, then print out the response on the pin-fed paper used by the teleprinter. Terminals of this type gained popularity in many publishing and media firms during the 1950s, as the use of these electronic brains for conducting fact checks helped these businesses constantly update and maintain vast amounts of information on all sorts of data.
Most of these early devices required the use of punch cards to add information to a database. The punch cards were created by using equipment to perforate a small rectangular card at specific points along the body of the card. Each card was fed into a slot on the terminal, allowing the system to read the card and convert the information into electronic data that was then stored in the memory banks of the system. It was this stored data that the system would access when a query was made, translate the data back into common language, and use one or more teleprinters to provide a printout of the answer.
With the technological advances of the 1970s and 1980s, the concept of the computer terminal began to shift somewhat. Instead of a small number of terminals connected to a mainframe, the idea of a network of desktop connections via a central server came into being. By the 1990s, the workstations in many businesses were no longer equipped with devices like typewriters, but featured a hard drive, monitor, and keyboard that was small enough to fit on a typical work desk. In some cases, these newer terminals also included a printer, although many businesses opted to use a single printer to service several terminals at once. As technology continued to enhance the electronic functions of these newer systems, single printers at individual workstations became more common.
Today, a computer terminal not only allows the user to connect with data saved on a hard drive, or the data stored on a common server within the business, but also to the wealth of information that is found on the Internet. This contemporary configuration of the terminal is continuing to undergo change. Advances in technology now make it possible to use laptops and even some handheld devices to remotely connect with databases, enter and retrieve data, and in general perform all the tasks that were once only possible in an office setting.