Using Historical Images to Teach 21st Century Critical Thinking

The longer I teach, the more and more I keep changing how I teach history. Since I graduated college in 1986, a lot of changes have taken place in how history is taught and how history is learned. I have gone from crank copy machines to overheads to the Internet and much, much more. 

Here’s the thing, though. The changes are accelerating for both the students and myself. The basic outline of a lesson has not changed in the past 30 years. It always begins with an anticipatory set or hook, followed by 2-4 activities that are connected with beginning activity. What has changed is what those activities are.

I’ve gone from newspaper activities to guided reading to primary document analysis to research using encyclopedias and Yearbooks to Googling information. Educational films have gone from filmstrips and reel-to-reel to VHS and DVDs and now digital .mp4 files and YouTube. It’s been a staggering development when I look back at how I used to teach.

However, the biggest change in teaching that I am seeing in my current students is how much they are dependent on the visual image for learning. Part of it is basic neurology as their brains make multiple connections between the oral, auditory, and visual parts of the mind and in the lesson.

When the Internet took off in the mid 1990s, it changed how I taught history, found resources, and collected from the past. These include images, political cartoons, maps, and other historical documents. Over the past 24 years, the photograph or visual image has become my most effective strategy for teaching. Whether it is for review, putting pictures in a test, or for analysis, it is how the modern student learns. It is images that jump start their brains into thinking about an event and sometimes lead to empathy. They can connect dozens of facts to a single photograph if the context of the image is taught correctly.

I have written before about using images for analysis of D-Day. I have also done it with a lesson the Cuban Missile Crisis. My favorite, still, is using images of the Vietnam War. That could be changing soon as I figure out more and more ways for students to access and assess still and moving images.

Today, I wanted to share a few other examples of using images as a critical thinking tool.

The Birmingham Bus Boycott
I love teaching about the Civil Rights Movement! The images from this time in history are just so powerful. Most kids love examining them! For this lesson, I begin with a picture of MLK on a bus that is revisited several times throughout the lesson. Each time, I ask what they are talking about. The responses from the students change from brief summations of the previous day’s lesson into a full blown descriptions of the bus boycott. Rosa Parks and Emmett Till come in at some points along with a couple of cartoons as student piece together the events, basically creating their own timeline. When the lesson is over, I hand them this document. The students then use the pictures to create their own animated timeline of what happened. It provides for an interesting thought process as they try to supplant the timeline they just created with real images from the event.

After learning about the March at Selma, students look through this folder and pick ten pictures and/or cartoons. Then they rank them from 1-10 as the most important pictures of the events. It can be a very interesting discourse as they attach certain emotions to certain images. Most students tend to focus on the events on the bridge while others focus in on certain individuals like Diane Nash, MLK, or John Lewis. It can be fascinating to see not only what they learn, but who or what they attach themselves to in the process.

1970s Culture
This is probably the most fun lesson for me. After learning about 70s mainstream culture, I break things down from a national level to a personal one. Students get access to this folder to try and piece together what this person’s culture and childhood was like just based on these pictures. They use 8-10 pics to basically make a biography of that person. It almost becomes like a photo album as they have to explain what the image is and what it might represent to the owner.  When they have that done, then they compare and contrast to their own childhood/teenage years.

When it comes to these 70s pictures, it is probably the hardest one for the students to wrap their brains around until they make that personal connection.

The issue is context. Students may know mainstream culture from the readings they covered the day before, but there is no real emotion attached to anything so personal. Trying to attach meaning to something without meaning is eye opening at times. Somehow, a connection has to be made for them between their own lives and the images. A lot of lightbulb moments take place in this lesson. Teachers can adjust it for their own lives, depending on your own childhood. There are over 90 pics in this folder, plenty to get several different variations in a biography.

There is no cartoonist more associated with the McCarthy era than Herb Block of the Washington Post. Better known as Herblock, the cartoonist stood up against Senator Joseph McCarthy and his tactics in a way that many Americans easily understood. By using this Google search, students analyze the ills of that era through political cartoons. The first day of the lesson actual looks at how Edward R. Murrow and President Truman stood up to McCarthy. This webquest continues the lesson by examining the objects, words, actions and point of each cartoon as the students relate these images to what they learned the day before.

There are dozens of other ways that images can be used to instigate critical thinking. The key is for the student to somehow make connections between the image and the events of the lesson. One image can truly be worth a thousand words if the image has context and some emotional connection. Most of these lessons aren’t one-off lessons, either. They take place over multiple days as part of a bigger unit. Just like the D-Day and Cuban Missile Crisis lessons, they are a lot of fun for both learning and teaching.



Cataloging a Museum: Day Two

Yesterday was another interesting day at the museum. I got there about nine and surveyed what I had left to do. It didn’t seem like much. However, once I got into the picture taking, it was a lot more than I bargained for that day.

When all was said and done, around eleven in the morning, another 683 pictures had been taken. Most of the pictures are of farm magazines, farm manuals, seed corn equipment, and various other sundries. Here are a few of the highlights of day two.

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The first picture is of an wrench that had a variety of sizes of sockets. The second picture is of a caponizing kit which is used to neuter chickens and make the birds more tender and fatter for slaughter. The third picture is of Lionel train kits that has all sorts of gauges and signs to order.

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The next set of pictures contains likely my favorite artifact of the day, a poster for a medicine to grow hair. The second book is a catalog of John Deere tractors and their worth. The last picture is of a book on pigs.

438 419 163

I love the first picture. It is a kit for a cook on a wagon train. It has all kinds of compartments, devices, and places for spices that a cook would need on the trail. The second picture is a type of scyth used to  take down wheat and hay. It is massive is size. Then last is a magazine  put out by DeKalb Hybrids called Acres of Gold. The owner of the museum had about 40 of these educational magazines that helped farmers keep up with the latest in seeds and farming technology.

The next task on the agenda will be to make a digital catalog of the entire museum. I think that might take me most of the summer. With over 2,000 items to browse and find information on, plus other items he buys this summer, I get to work from my office and make a digital card for each item. I think as I begin to go through each item, categorize, tell its story, and import the picture, I will get a better understanding of the changes in agriculture over the years.

I will post occasionally about an item that I find to be interesting to me. With 2,000+ items, I am sure I can find something to pique my interest.

A Glimpse into the Summer of 2015

010I have been teaching for over 20+ years but this summer I get to do something few historians get to do – I get to catalog a farm museum. Located south of Belvidere, Illinois, the museum actually started out as a hobby of a local farmer. It began with a few pieces 20 years ago and now has morphed into three buildings of agricultural lore. From seed bags to seed corn signs to toys and even wagons, over one hundred and fifty years of American agriculture is told through the machines used to grow and make the food we eat. I estimate there are between 2000-3000 pieces in the museum.

Yesterday, the farmer had an open house, which he does once or twice a year in addition to hosting school groups. I strolled around the grounds, took some pictures, and talked to some members of the community where I teach. It was a good day, but I also got an idea of the enormity of the task which awaits me.

My tools for the summer will be a tape measure, a camera, and a laptop. When I am done, there will be over a thousand slides that look something like this:


It’s a big task. It might even be overwhelming. But it will be a fun task as I get to hear the stories behind each piece. Some people may make fun of the show American Pickers, but the people on the show truly do protect forgotten pieces of American history. And this museum, its owner, and its collection are pretty close to the people and places Mike and Frank see each week.

007To me, it is all about the stories behind the piece. That is what I look forward to most. I don’t know how long it will take me to catalog the three buildings. I really don’t care. It could be weeks, months, or even a couple of summers, but it something I think is important. My father, my maternal grandfather, and my uncle were all involved in agricultural. It is something that I think reminds me of them.

The blog this summer will post weekly updates with some items highlighted for their uniqueness or importance. The summer may go fast, but for this historian, it will be something few historians get to do.

Teaching D-Day: Surviving the Invasion

Having a student teacher in the fall has its advantages. I spent a lot of time watching her try new things and doing different type of lessons. During the Civil War unit, she made the students hard tack. She was very good and will make a good teacher wherever she goes. During many of her lessons I would be surfing on a tablet for new things to use in the classroom to reinvigorate me, the lessons and, ultimately, the students. In early November, I took my little history club over to Cantigny in Wheaton, Illinois, where they have the museum for the US Army First Division. While on the website booking the trip I came across some great resources. I immediately downloaded the pdf files and began cherry picking what I could use. Once I came across these resources, I knew I was onto to redoing how I teach DDay.

I am one of those teachers who doesn’t teach the same way every year, or should I say as I did when I started teaching. Technology, mainly the Internet, has changed a lot of that. Just using Google allows me to access historical sites, pictures, journals, and maps from repositories all over the world. What once was the sole bastion of scholars who visited libraries and museums is now available at the click of a finger.

Before this great adventure, I had done all kinds of different approaches to teaching about the world’s greatest invasion. I has shown parts of “Band of Brothers,” used maps, scenarios, photograph analysis, Eisenhower’s DDay Letter, and/or simulations. That lesson was usually one day long. But I wanted to make it unique and something they wouldn’t forget after the test. So, I began to restructure the lesson. Some elements remain from past lessons, and some new elements were created. This lesson should take three days to do this week. Key word is should – it might take four…..or five.

Day One…
It all begins by connecting what they learned with what they are going to learn. So, to connect their learning, I use a cartoon.
This is by Dr. Seuss. The students have already seen several cartoons by Dr. Seuss about World War II, but this cartoon is about the ramifications from the Battle of Stalingrad which they just learned about the day before. When teaching cartoons, some kids struggle with the symbolism, but they can at least identify objects, actions, and words in the cartoon. Once the basics are established, I go for three higher order/critical thinking questions:

  1. Which words are of most importance?
  2. Predict what you think will happen when Winter sits up
  3. Why does that matter?

The students must think about the implications of winter ending and what Hitler will do and what the US (you and me) will do, too.

After that discussion, I go into a few notes and pictures on Fortress Europa, the Atlantic Wall, Italy, the Battle of Kursk in 1943. That should take about 7-10 minutes. The emphasis is on opening up a second front in Europe. Once 1944, comes, I shift gears and segue into a scenario about where to invade in France to open up a second front and create a German sandwich. The students will get a map, some descriptions of the four places. They are to then get in small groups make a chart that analyzes the positives and negatives about each place.
The choices will be Dieppe, Calais, Cherbourg, and Havre.
DDay sim map
As a class we will then go over the columns and select one landing spot and then I will spill the beans about what the choice was.

Every time I teach a new lesson, you would think that after 20+ years, I would know how long things are going to take. I do, but when it comes to the interest the students show by asking questions, I never know. Some classes don’t ask many questions, others ask a lot. I hope that by this time, the lesson should be 30 minutes in. The lesson turns again when I will ask one simple question, “How do you hide the largest invasion force in history?” The students had previously learned that the Germans did have spies in Britain during the Battle of Britain and the British were masters of deception during the Battle of El Alamein. Students then will be asked to come up with some strategies about how to deceive the German spies in Britain and those listening on BBC radio across the English Channel in northeastern France. Once the students put forth their deceptive answers, I will show them some pictures and some information on Operation Fortitude – the plan for deceiving German Intelligence.
British Deception
Day one ends (I hope) with me putting a nice ribbon and bow on everything by tying all three parts of the lesson together – the cartoon, the chart, and the deception. The students then get a worksheet about DDay that examines some cartoons that were published just before the invasion.
44-d-day-buildup 44-d-day-prepD.82a-D-Day-buildup-Lull-before-the-storm

44-d-day-prep-Ike D.98a-D-Day-June-8-19441

Day Two
This day begins by quickly reviewing the previous days events and then examine 2 letters. The first comes a surprise. It is the letter that Eisenhower wrote in case DDay failed.

Ike's failure of DDay letter should come as a surprise.

Ike’s failure of DDay letter should come as a surprise.

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault is attached to the attempt it is mine alone.”

We will discuss why this letter was written. We will also discuss their reactions to reading it, and finally, we will discuss why it never saw the light of day.

Moving on, the students then read Ike’s letter to the troops. They then answer four questions about it.

Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!
You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have
striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The
hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.
In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well
equipped and battle hardened. He will fight savagely.

But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of
1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!

I have full confidence in your courage and devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!

Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.
SIGNED: Dwight D. Eisenhower

1. Underline the ten keys words in the letter.
2. What events had taken place before the letter?
3. Why did he the write letter?
4. What might have happened after?

We discuss word choice and other possible words. The highlight of the four day lesson comes next to me. I hand out a packet of pictures that has artifacts that the soldiers used to survive the invasion. Students guess for what each artifact was used.
I do not tell them what they are or how they were used. We discuss their possible uses and it is a great activity as students should get pretty creative with their answers (I do something similar in the Civil War but about life in camp). They now have to figure out what the artifacts were used for by watching an educational film from the Discovery Channel called “Surviving DDay.” For the last 15 minutes of Day Two, we begin watching the film. Students are to identify artifacts in the movie and write down how they helped the soldiers survive. The students get a map worksheet for their assignment.

Day Three
The third day begins by using resources from Cantigny (mentioned above) that include some journals/diaries by soldiers. We read one today and another one on Day Four. This will give a glimpse into the struggles the soldiers faced and how they had to problem solve on the beaches. After the discussion, we resume the video.

At several points during the film, we will stop and discuss certain artifacts and their implications on survival. Students will also have time to pair and share information every fifteen minutes during the film (I don’t like to make them sit there – who wants to do that?). This makes me think that four days may not be enough.

At the end of class, the students get a second map worksheet about the dangers on the beach.

Day Four
The second diary entry is read, discussed, and then students finish watching the video. The remaining time in class is spent making a pamphlet called “Surviving DDay” using the artifacts from the film. When the film concludes, I have a few notes on the implications of the invasion and how it fits in the context of the war, problem solving, and critical thinking. I hope that four days is enough. It is a lot of time to spend on one event but “more on less” is a philosophy I believe in. I hope this turns out to be an experience that they remember. It could be five days. If it is, I will adjust. I would be OK with that.

Teaching George W. Bush: An Ever Evolving Unit

bush-largeTeaching U.S. History this year has been quite different. I rearranged the class so that I could teach more about modern times (since the 1970s). It has been extremely enjoyable! I was able to go into detail about Nixon, the late 70s, Reagan, Desert Storm, Clinton, and the 1990s, and this past week, I finished up the George W. Bush and 2000s era. The kids have really enjoyed learning about something to which they can relate. For me as a teacher, it has been hard to have the kids investigate something so recent. Many emotions that I never knew existed in me bubbled up near to the surface in these lessons.

When designing this unit on Modern America, I started with the Clinton Era. That went really well for two weeks. However, when it came to George W. Bush, I knew in planning the key events I wanted to cover, I just didn’t know how. I had to really think about what would engage the students most. At one point, I even asked them, weeks in advance, what they wanted to learn about. I decided to have the kids learn over the course of nine days about September 11th, the Patriot Act, The War In Iraq, the Economic Meltdown, Culture and Technology in the 2000s, and Bush in Cartoons.

September 11th
Prior to this lesson, the students had already heard the name Bin Laden in history class when we they were briefed about the Soviet excursion into Afghanistan, Reagan’s support of the Mujaheddin in the 1980s, the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing, and the attacks on the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania along with Clinton’s futile response. However, this lesson begins with the election of 2000 and Bush’s first year in office. The lesson centers around one key historical piece of evidence; the August 6, 2001, Presidential Daily Briefing memo.

This memo provides a ripe discussion about what the President could have done. But on the flip side, it is discussed what the memo does not say. The students clearly make the connection of this memo to the Bomb Plot message on Pearl Harbor some 60 years previously. However, the students when asked what key information is missing that could have helped the President easily discuss dates and how the planes were used. While the memo clearly states Bin Laden’s intentions to use airplanes, the memo does not state how, where, or when.
A PowerPoint timeline is then shown with key events of the morning up to the crash of Flight 93 and then Bush is shown giving his speech to the nation. The lesson concludes as the students look up information and answer questions about the origin of the hijackers and the US’s response in Afghanistan in their textbook.

The Patriot Act
The day begins with a “True, False, or Opinion Quiz about questions on their homework. A brief discussion is had about the US response abroad in Afghanistan. But the lesson focuses on changes made here at home in the wake of the attacks. The students view ten cartoons in a slideshow and try to determine what all the Patriot Act does. It is a little unique but something that the students can derive meaning from. Then the students are given a handout of 12 things the Patriot Act did. They then determine whether those 12 things are positive or negative attributes of the act. Interestingly  this lesson was taught in the days shortly after the Boston Marathon bombing. When asked if the Patriot Act should continue, the students had interesting takes on its importance to catching terrorists, foreign and/or domestic.

The War in Iraq
In designing lessons on this topic, I knew I was going to have to walk a slippery slope. The lessons took place over three days. In hindsight, I don’t know if that was enough. I am pretty sure I should have added a fourth day. On day one, the students begin the lesson with Clay Bennett’s famous Invasion checklist cartoon.


We discuss the reasons why Bush might want to invade Iraq. For students who were 4 when the war started, they knew a lot of stuff but not a lot of details. We discuss the Bush/Cheney Doctrine and its merits. We then watch an educational film  about events leading up to the war (I skipped the first couple of minutes of the video below). This part of the lesson takes two days and the students make a product on why the US went to war and what evidence that was publicized by several members of the Bush administration was wrong. The students have to write down who said what, the evidence and supposed source, and the actual truth.

The third day of this part of the unit is where I feel I need to make some changes. I feel I tried to cram too much into one day this year and I need to spread it out. We examine Jeff Stahler’s wonderful cartoon of Sherman, Mr. Peabody and the WABAC machine.

stahler (3)

After a brief discussion, the students are given a packet of pictures from the war including Saddam’s Capture, Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, Mohammed Satr, David Patreus, Baghdad Bob, several cartoons, graphs, and maps about the war. The students then try and determine what went right and what went wrong about the war. Once the students had cut out the pictures and organized them, I felt clearly rushed in trying to get through and explain each individual picture about things that went right and wrong. Next year, I definitely need to break this into two parts – before and after the surge. To conclude the lesson, some explicit comparisons and contrasts to the Vietnam War also need to be made next year.

What surprised me most about teaching these three lessons was that I felt some outright mixed emotions about what went down in Iraq. I told the students that originally I believed what the government was selling about weapons of mass destruction. But I did disagree with the administration that a war was the best way to depose Saddam’s regime. At some point I need to sit down and interview a couple of my friends who served in Iraq and get their viewpoint. I could also bring one of them in to talk to the kids and answer questions.

The Economic Meltdown
Out of all the lessons, this one was the hardest to understand for the students. Economics is a hard concept to teach, especially when the students have no personal context. A brief summary of the crisis is given and then students view ten cartoons and pick the one they think best explains the crisis. We clearly differed in opinions. I selected this cartoon while they selected the second.
The lesson then included an activity where they tried to arrange 9 picture events in the order they happened. I got the pictures from here ( and the students struggled in arranging them in order. I think, looking back, I should have explained how buying a house works and included some simulation on the process for the students to understand what was happening better. This could have been done at the beginning of the class. However, they did do well on the homework answering questions about the lesson and it’s lessons and this graph/image.


Culture and Technology in the 2000s
Students loved doing this lesson as it dealt with their childhood. They loved doing it so much it took two days to do instead of one. They simply do a web search and it becomes very personal for them as history should be.

Sources to use and Questions to answer

1. Tell which of these movies was your favorite movie of the decade. Explain why and get a picture/poster. Pick the one you think was Dr. J’s favorite.

2. – Of these 100 songs, pick ten that you like and explain why/ – Of these 100 songs, which 10 or 15 do you think Dr. Johnson likes (hint – eliminate most (not all) of the hip-hop songs) and explain why

3. iPod History: Read this timeline and then describe how the iPod itself changed over the decade

4. iPod Ad Go to Google and type in iPod Ad on Google Images. Pick the iPod ad that best represents you. Copy and paste the ad into your answers and explain why.

5. What advancements were made in Science and technology. Go here:

6. What TV shows do you remember growing up? Get a couple pictures

7. How did Video Games change during the decade? When have answered the question, get a picture of your favorite game.

8. How did the computer and Internet change in the 2000s?

9. What happened to print media in the past ten years? What do you think will happen to it in the future?

10. Get 5 pics of what people wore in the decade

11. How did baseball change in the decade?

12. Social Media: How did it change? Anyone remember MySpace? Explain the following pictures and how the logos changed our lives

13. Other Sports a. Who were the dominant teams in the NFL, NHL, and NBA in the decade?



iii. iv. Get one picture of your favorite team

14. With all these changes, Is society changing for the better or worse? Explain in a paragraph

Bush In Cartoons
The unit concludes with students viewing 100 cartoons in a folder on the school’s network. They then select the ten they think best summarizes the Bush presidency. After each cartoon they have to explain why they chose that specific cartoon. They have fun browsing and picking the cartoons.

Changes for next year
I have other ideas that I could teach more in detail. Most of the details surround September 11th and the war in Afghanistan including the death of Pat Tillman. I am also considering showing a video on the history of the iPod. Ultimately, it is what the students can investigate and formulate opinions about using evidence. Pat Tillman’s death is a classic example of something the students like to do and that is to solve mysteries and base opinions on evidence. I will probably not be done tinkering with this until for a couple of years. I thought of including aspects of the 9/11 report and the Bush’s PDF file of 8 years of accomplishments  but decided I could make adjustments the second year.

Who knows how events in the Middle East will continue to play to show the long term effects of Bush’s actions and if and when the economy rebounds to show the effect of the 2007 mortgage crisis? For the time being, it is difficult to teach the history of an event that will have lasted 12 years in Afghanistan come this fall. For me, that is the hard part, or maybe it’s the fun part, to see how history records and views these modern events as time progresses. The strangest part is that within the next five years, all of my eighth grade students will have been born after the events of September 11th and the beginning of the War in Iraq. The events seemed like they just happened yesterday. I know how I saw them as these events unfolded. To see the students discover, investigate, and formulate their own opinions is even more interesting to me. That is what teaching history should be.

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

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