50 Years of Bits and Bytes…

Mountain View, CA. September 29, 2018 

My first use of a computer was as an undergrad in the UK in the mid-1970s: running statistical programs using punched cards and teleprinters. In the early 1980s, at Berkeley, I was using a Digital VT100 remote video terminal that hooked me up to the university mainframe using a 1200 baud modem over a dial-up phone. This was the first time I computed from home, although there was certainly plenty of friction with housemates also wanting to use the phone line. Had to go to a basement computer services room on the Berkeley campus, though, to pick up printouts. Soon after that, I bought a Morrow CP/M twin-floppy disk microcomputer with terminal and keyboard and an Epsom ink-jet printer. We much debated the virtues of the Morrow over the first IBM PC, I liked the Morrow! In our research projects, we used Kaypro “portable” (i.e. luggable, they were heavy) machines. Wanting something that really was portable, I bought a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100 – a flat keyboard laptop, with a small screen (c. 80 characters by 8 lines), could run for ages on A4 batteries, used a cassette tape recorder for storage. Storage and recall was fiddly. But the Model 100 was portable, and I easily could take it around with me and take notes all day.

A TRS-Model-100 (early 1980s), at CHM: I still have mine too!

My memories of five decades of computing were brought wonderfully back into focus while visiting the Computer History Museum (CHM) in Mountain View, California. This really is a fantastic place. The 2000-year history of human computing is traced, and there is much about the development of analogue calculating machines in the 19th and early 20th  centuries. The transformation to digital computing, with its roots in WWII and the Cold War is documented (with noticeable credit to groundbreaking developments at the University of Manchester). The eras of the mainframe (dominated by IBM) and mini-computer (led by the DEC PDP) are presented. But as the story reaches the rise of the personal computer in the late 1970s and early 1980s, that’s when it gets especially interesting for me. It is fascinating to again see many of the pioneering computing technologies, and read about their founders, the companies involved, and who gained and lost. The emergence of the internet is described, while there are examples of the first web browsers from the early 1990s. I was introduced to Mosaic, the first World Wide Web browser, c. 1993, at Georgia Tech, then we moved onto Netscape.  From then on, a succession of PCs – Dell desktops and laptops, IBM laptops, Apple laptops,  and now my current Lenovo laptop (which I really like!). The Lenovo has the red cursor button in the middle of the keyboard, inherited from IBM. Various Palm devices, dumb and smart phones, printers, software packages, programming languages, and web browsers along the way. The Computer History Museum takes you on a journey though all these developments and more, including the rise of video gaming, robotics, AI, and autonomous vehicles.

Besides bring back memories of old hardware and software, this visit highlighted the dynamism, disruption and seemingly never-ending search for technological improvement that has propelled the last five decades of advancement in computing. While much of this advancement has been underwritten by government and associated academic and military research, a recurrent theme is the importance of individual and corporate entrepreneurial drive. And, lots of trial and error: many promising computing technologies and business models failed to deliver, but others did — making fortunes for a few and changing the nature of work and communication for many, if not all of us.