A Very Brief History of Computers



The idea of Computers, as programmable (we will investigate this non-intuitive idea as we go along) devices, dates back some 200 years to Lyon, France and Jacquard looms (patterns could be “programmed” onto paper cards that then controlled a loom so it would weave the pattern onto the fabric, automatically).  Thirty years later, the British mathematician Charles Babbage invented a programmable calculating device called the Analytical Engine.  His protégé, Ada Lovelace (the daughter of Lord Byron) is now called the first “programmer”.  The American Herman Hollerith used punched-cards to tabulate the U.S. census of 1890 faster than before; his company was renamed IBM in 1924.  In the 1930’s, the Englishman Alan Turing developed the idea of a “universal” computing machine that led to the modern computer.  Two Americans, John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert, built the first successful modern computer, the ENIAC, at the University of Pennsylvania in 1945.  The UNIVAC (UNIVersal Automatic Computer) was the first commercially used computer through the mid-1950’s.  Then the IBM dinosaur arrived on the scene; its reign lasted some twenty-five years until 1980.  Not only was it the giant of the computing industry, it was, NOT arguably in my opinion, the most important industrial entity in the world for two and a half decades.

The first microcomputer, the Altair 8800, was brought to market by MITS in 1975.  Its heart (more accurately its brain) was an Intel microprocessor based on integrated circuit technology that was an enhancement of a digital-watch (remember those first watches with ugly LED displays?) component.  Bill Gates and Paul Allen, boyhood friends from Seattle who were attending Harvard and MIT, saw the handwriting on the wall, dropped out of school, founded Microsoft and wrote the first BASIC computer languages (computer programs that allowed others to write computer programs more easily) for really small computers.  Apple Computer Inc. was formed in 1976 by Steven Jobs and Stephen Wozniak, two college dropouts / computer enthusiasts living in the Bay area in California.  They brought out the Apple II in 1977, introducing color and graphics to small computing.  By 1979, Visicalc was introduced as the first electronic spreadsheet program and microcomputers began to find their ways onto the desks of numbers workers in large corporations.  IBM brought out their first PC in the summer of 1981, forever “legitimizing” really small computers and renaming them in the process.  While IBM was designing their PC, it was clear that it would make more sense to purchase an Operating System than to write their own.  A very clever and opportunistic Bill Gates acquired Tim Patterson’s operating system program for the express purpose of reselling it to IBM.  So Microsoft, a willing bride seeking acceptance and status in the corridors of power, walked down the aisle as a full-partner with IBM, the most respected name in the industrial world, as the supplier of the PC’s first Operating System, DOS.

DOS (for “Disk-based Operating System”; clever, no?) was a command-driven, text-based Operating System.  This means that users of these computers were faced with a blank screen patiently waiting for someone to type in instructions.  As a computer’s operating system is more important than the computer itself, other computer manufacturers were able to build computers that could compete directly with IBM.  Microsoft was the direct beneficiary of this reality, as IBM couldn’t keep them from selling customized versions of their DOS to others.  Microsoft, not IBM, was in control of the PC industry’s future.

In the early 1980’s, word-processing programs named Multimate and Word Perfect, were written for PC’s to compete with dedicated word-processing machines from Wang, Data General and IBM.  These single-purpose machines cost about $20,000, while the PC programs typically cost $400 - $500 and ran on a stock PC, average cost $3000.  Word-processing exploded and IBM had to compete, with themselves!  In 199x, they introduced Writer, word-processing software that would let a PC emulate its $18,000 IBM Writer (the vastly more expensive and infinitely less useful IBM Writer survived two more years, proving something about American business decision-making).

In 1984, Apple came out with the Macintosh, the first PC that boasted type-setting kinds of capabilities, giving rise to the desktop-publishing industry.  The Mac was also the first PC whose user-interface looked like a professionally-designed printed page.

Microsoft made the next big move, converting generic PC’s into Macintosh-like PC’s with a new Operating System called Windows.  The first version of Windows was introduced in 1985, but it took until the early 1990’s before Windows could be considered a serious standard on PC’s.  Windows brought to the PC an ease of use that expand the market for PC’s to non-technical people in their homes, not just to nuymbers-workers taking work home.  The uses that PC’s are now being put to – personal finance, writing, doing homework, and Internet communication – are to a large part popular and wide-spread due to the easy to use and understand Windows interface.

It is a fact that before 1970 no one had ever imagined “a computer on every desk,” Apple Computer’s slogan, as the cost of the least expensive computer was more than the annual salary of the person who used it.  “A computer in every home” is the goal of the PC industry and Windows is an integral part of the success of this vision, as it allows the average person who does not know the first thing about computers to use them successfully.  Yes, it may take a generation of folks to die off first, like Moses’ Israelites in Sinai, but every four year-old with PC access knows how to work them.

The only remaining goal for the PC industry is “a computer in every room and robots everywhere.”  But that future can wait.





A Very Brief & Personal History of Computers

From the start, PC’s could communicate with each other over phone lines, and many hobbyists hooked up with the Internet from the beginning.  But the Internet really took off with the introduction of Mosaic in 1993 and Netscape in 1994.  Both of these were shareware (free for download) programs that laid the foundation for the graphical, hyper-linked World Wide Web, now erroneously confused with the Internet itself.  The usership of the Internet went from a hundred thousand to two million after a year and a half of Mosaic and to forty million after another year and a half of Netscape.

And here we are, on the verge of a world where we are all linked wirelessly, like a gigantic 3-dimensional spider-web with a potential for ten billion intersections, the biggest and most uncontrollable party-line ever imagined.  Will we survive the human need to communicate?


But I am not going to use this space to tell you about something many of you would find only marginally interesting.  If you’re interested in learning more about the Paleontology of Computing, write or e-mail me and I’ll send you articles.

With a Masters degree in English Literature, I began a career in programming (that nasty word again!) Computers, beginning in 1966.  In mid-1979, just as I was beginning to look for something else to do with my work-life, my wife told me to take my son Daniel to The Small Computer show being held in New York City’s Coliseum that Sunday afternoon.  I reacted quite negatively: “I do this stuff enough during the week!”  Finally, I submitted, and I took my son (six at the time) into New York City on a hot Sunday afternoon.  What I felt that day were the in utero thrashings of a child unborn, and I had signed on as its Godfather.  All we knew about this Revolution was its motto: a Computer on every desk (Apple Computer’s slogan) (needs checking out), a Computer in every home.  There was no end to the possibilities I imagined that day.

Within a week, I had found a retail Computer store where I arranged to explain and sell PC’s to Customers in exchange for unlimited use of the store’s Computers.  Within a month, I found a few magazines to subscribe to as I began my obsession.  At its worst, I subscribed to thirty magazines, old issues of which I kept in neat piles on the floor of our one-car garage.  Within four months, I was the proud owner of an Apple II Computer.  Within six months, I was the first employee of Bankers Trust Company to be paid to research Micro-Computers.  Within a year I was finished as, in their infinite wisdom, the Bank management had placed me in the Time-Sharing division of MIS, the group that placed Computing power in user departments for hourly charges.  Micro-Computers, my God-children, were a direct threat to this group’s revenues.  I was Daniel and I was being fed to the Lions.  In this case, the Lions were hungry and they fed.  Despite the ugly loss of weight, the rest of my career in Business has been about the proliferation of PC’s.

What the first generation of PC’s gave to business users initially was autonomy and productivity.  These users of PC’s in the early 1980’s were number crunchers, people whose tools were Calculators and Ledger paper.  Into their world stormed the Electronic Spreadsheet (first called VisiCalc, later Lotus 1-2-3, now Excel), an electronic replacement for their old-fashioned tools.  The task that used to take two and a half hours to perform now took fifteen minutes, a ten to one increase in Productivity.  And while they used a Computer to accomplish the task, it was without the Data Processing Dept’s approval or aid, and they could do it themselves, it was really easy.  Ironically, many of these pioneers were sacrificed to the Bank’s culture of Top-Down decision-making, despite the contribution they had made to the Bank’s over-all efficiency and competitiveness.

Now for some names and dates. 



In 199x, Tim Berners Lee ???, laying the foiundation for the World Wide Web.  In 199x, xxx wrote Mosaic and then Netscape, “legitimizing” the World Wide Web.  Bill Gates did an about face, betting Microsoft’s future on the Internet and the Web.

Today, anybody crystal-balling the future will see that the next idea is a computer-chip everywhere.


created on 5/13/2001