The Personal Computer: From the Garage to the Desktop to the Laptop and Beyond

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One of my favorite parts of teaching US History is when I get to the 1990s. I tell the kids of what life was like in the dark ages before the personal computer boomed. My first personal computer was purchased through the school where I still teach. Out of every paycheck for a year, the school would take out a little money to pay for the computer. I think it was around $1100. I do, however, remember the storage space…2.1 GB. Not much by today’s standards – I have flash drives that dwarf that now. But in 1996, 2.1 GB of memory was plenty as long you had a large supply of floppy disks. I sit and think about those days, but it was only sixteen years ago. CD-ROMs were still new but not rewritable. Telephones had been wireless in the home for less than five years. Brick cellphones were somewhat common, dial up internet was the norm, Sega Genesis and Nintendo controlled the gaming industry, and DVDs and texting were still far, far away. Still, to have a computer in your home was a gigantic change in how people lived. As much as television changed the familial structure of American life in the 1950s, the computer would do so in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Colossus Mark I Computer

The story of how the personal computer started begins during World War II. The above picture shows the Colossus Mark I the British developed to crack German codes. Part of Project Ultra, the computer ran on vacuum tubes. Colossus Mark I contained 1500 while Colossus Mark II had 2400. But as far as computing power goes, today’s PC have much more. After the war in 1946, the US jumped ahead in the computing industry with ENIAC to be used in the intelligence field.

ENIAC in 1946

In the 1950s, things did develop slowly for the computer industry. Main frames filled entire rooms to catalog and store data. Insurance companies and banks were the main entities using the devices. For venture capitalists, television held more of an alluring investment opportunity. Computers were still 20 years away from a major breakthrough.

The 1960s saw the best and brightest minds in computer technology gravitate initially toward the space industry. In fact, today’s home computers have more functionality, storage, and processing power than the computers on Apollo XI-XVI. But in 1968, the first major computer related corporation of today was born. Intel, founded in 1968, started in Mountain View, California. One of their first products released in the early 70s changed everything about computing. The microprocessor, the 8080, made computing faster and smaller. Intel thought the chip would be good for only traffic lights and calculators. What the chip did was to shrink functions and storage into minute bits of information. Intel really did not know what to do with it.

In the 1970s, the computer industry was still mainly used by large corporations. Soon, though, the microprocessor did find its way into cash registers and calculators as well as cars and other everyday items. What did change in the 1970s was that people were making their own computers. Some made them from kits like the Altair 8800 by Ed Roberts. Two people who were making their own computers in their garage were Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs. And it was in garages like theirs that the personal computers that we use today began developing.

In the late 1970s, the boom in home computing took root in central California. Also inspired by Xerox’s Alto upright design, Jobs and Wozniak’s Apple corporation was a part of a wide release of home computers in 1977. The Commodore PET, the TRS-80 by Radio Shack and the Apple II all debuted. Most early computers were cost prohibitive. When the average salary for Americans in the late 1970s was around 12-14,000/year, the cost of $2,000-3,000 was a large investment. In the late 70s and early 80s, other companies got in on the business including IBM. In 1981, Time Magazine named the PC the Machine of the Year.

In the early 80s, the Commodore 64 and NEC PC-98 dominated the market share. Still, these early home companies could not do much. Storage was limited and most information had to be stored on large floppy disks. What was needed was a computer with programs and storage. Apple launched the Macintosh to world wide acclaim in 1984 but its sales were slow. What made the Macintosh different was the mouse or graphic interface.

IBM began to dominate the field in the 1980s. Wozniak left Apple, and Steve Jobs remained but his power and influence waned in the wake of Macinstosh’s slow sales. The personal computers of the 1980s were not really designed for home use, but rather for business. As the 80s began to close, all through out corporate America, computers were commonplace to store information in small places, and software to help run businesses was the primary software designed.

The 1990s saw what seemed like a revolution explode. The revolution, in fact, was the cost of computers going down, usability, and the world wide web browser interface. Bill Gates had envisioned in the 1970s that more money could be made in not making the computers, but in making what ran the computer and what ran on the computers. In 1995, all of his dreams came to fruition with the release of Windows 95. The operating system was based on selecting a program to run. The program popped up a Window, hence the name. But Windows 95 did not happen overnight. As an operating system, it evolved from Windows 3.1 and other earlier versions of Windows. Microsoft, the company of Gates, Paul Allen, and Steve Balmer, also produced software to run on the operating system. Windows came to dominate the marketplace. Somewhat of a monopoly, as it lacked serious competition, the company became the poster corporation for the computer boom. It represented all that was good, and all that was bad about the industry.With the release of the ’95 system combined with other software, people began buying computers for the home in large numbers. Windows 95 did not revolutionize computing but it was the tipping point in a slow revolution of bringing computing to the home.

The late 90s saw the home computing industry go from boom to bust as start up company after start up failed. From search engines to browsers to manufacturers, millionaires were made and bankrupted in a short period based on speculation. Companies like Gateway, Lycos, Alta-Vista, Compaq, and GeoCities came, ballooned and burst. Some died, but some do remain in a small capacity. When the technology market settled in the early 2000s, Dell had somehow pulled through as did Apple. Just as memory and storage evolved from vacuum tubes to microprocessors, so too have the computers. Everything is getting smaller. Desktop computers gave way to netbooks, laptops, PDAs, tablets, and now phones have the Internet. When will it end?

Wozniak and Jobs in the early days of Apple in 1979

What the computer has done in the home is nothing short of drastic. It has changed how we communicate and access information. More information is now spread by email and texting than by regular mail. The handwritten note is a dying relic. A card in the mailbox does not happen as often as it used to, and social networks have created a world on interconnectedness. Family life has more to do with what it posted on facebook as much as what is on TV and in real life. The personal computer has changed how we read, how we access information. The PC has practically killed the publishing and newspaper industry as we knew them in addition to regular mail. Games now come in a little box and a round thing with a hole in it that you load onto the computer. Or you can just go online and play. Soon, I imagine very soon, the TV will basically be one giant computer and act as a television, phone, Internet, and computer, all in one. One day in the near future, we will look back at the 1980s, and even the 2010s, and laugh at our awkwardness as those who bought cars made fun of those who rode horses 100 years ago. We will be mocked for the lack of speed with which we computed. Bill Gates envisioned the following future in the mid 1990s. He wasn’t far off.

Well, the PC will continue to evolve. In fact, you’ll think of it simply as a flat screen that will range from a wallet size device to a notebook, to a desktop, to a wall. And besides the size of the screen, the only other characteristic will be whether it is wired to an optic fiber or operating over a wireless connection. And those computers will be everywhere. You can find other people who have things that are in common. You can post messages. You can watch shows. The flexibility that this will provide is really quite incredible. And already there is the mania in discussing this so called “Information Highway” which is the idea of connecting up these devices not only in business, but in home, and making sure that video feeds work very well across these new networks. So we’ve only come a small way. We haven’t changed the way that markets are organized. We haven’t changed the way people educate themselves, or socialize, or express their political opinions, in nearly the way that we will over the next ten years. And so the software is going to have to lead the way and provide the kind of ease of use, security, and richness that those applications demand.

While some of us still marvel at the speed of it all, it was not long when information took days to travel and now it is pretty much instantaneous. We become angered when it doesn’t work, or the broadband can’t download as fast as we want. Most Americans have no inkling of how it all works, but it is quite wonderful what it can do. As Louis CK says, “Give it a second.” I tend to forget the dark ages before the PC. Some days,  I still like to ride the horse, lest I forget a simpler life.

The History Rat’s Nerd Cave
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