Book traces the evolution of the computer from the unusual to the ubiquitous

Book traces the evolution of the computer from the unusual to the ubiquitous

Thomas Haigh, professor of history at UWM, presents his collection of vintage personal computers, a few of which are discussed in the book “A New History of Modern Computing”, which he co-authored with Paul E. Ceruzzi. The beige desktop computer is a circa 1983 Apple IIe. Haigh’s closest flat computer is a 1984 IBM Portable PC 5155. (UWM Photo/Troye Fox)

Over the past 50 years, the computer has evolved from a hulking super science tool into a diverse family of devices that billions of people rely on to play games, shop, stream entertainment and communicate.

“A New History of Modern Computing,” a new book by Thomas Haigh, professor of history at UWM, and Paul Ceruzzi, author and curator emeritus at the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian Institution, charts these changes. .

In this discussion, Haigh explains how he and Ceruzzi reimagined Ceruzzi’s “A History of Modern Computing”, using each chapter to tell how a particular community of users and producers transformed the computer into something new. .

You could have simply told the story as a chronicle of unique inventions. But you structured it differently. Tell us about that.

Programmable electronic computers have been around for only one human lifetime, less than 80 years. We start the book in 1946 with the ENIAC, which was bulky, expensive and difficult to reprogram. It filled a large room, was designed for numerical calculations, and could only handle 200 digits of electronic memory.

Since then, computers have been transformed time and time again – not just getting cheaper, faster, and smaller, but being fundamentally reinvented to serve different groups of users and perform different tasks.

The histories, for example, of scientific, commercial, and military computing have run parallel or overlapped. We have therefore decided to make each chapter the story of one of these transformations: “The computer becomes a means of communication” for example, or “The computer becomes office equipment”.

What differentiates computer development from other technologies?

The journey of the computer from its origins as a scientific instrument to a general-purpose technology of unique flexibility seems unique in the history of technology.

Typically, technologies evolve rapidly in their first years and then level off. Computers continued to fundamentally change in their cost, capabilities, applications, users, and physical form factors for decade after decade after decade.

What are some of the digital devices from the evolution of computers that you talk about in the book?

From the 1970s, the flood of cheap microprocessor chips made it possible to hide computers inside consumer devices such as music synthesizers, toys like Speak & Spell or Simon, and pocket calculators. In the early 2000s, a tech enthusiast could carry a GPS device, a PDA such as a PalmPilot, a cell phone, a digital camera, and an MP3 player such as an Apple iPod. They were all powerful computers with screens, running software stored on chips.

Over the past decade, smartphones have replaced all of these devices, although there are still plenty of computers in your home disguised as televisions, home routers, video disc players and game consoles.

What aspect of PCs has led to the transformation of office work – other than being efficient word processors?

Large corporations had been using computers since the 1950s, but in data processing centers. Office workers saw stacks of computer printouts, but no computers. This began to change in the 1970s with smaller “personal computers”.

Early PCs had limited processing power and data storage, but they were responsive and could update their screens instantly. The most interesting applications were spreadsheets: the first VisiCalc (1979) and the Lotus 1-2-3 (1983).

Spreadsheets allowed junior executives and professionals to produce analyzes to justify their decisions, without having access to large computers or teams of assistants. Some people have pinned the whole 1980s craze for junk bonds and hostile takeovers, featured in the movie “Wall Street,” on the availability of spreadsheets.

What did gamers contribute to the development of the computer?

Most computer user needs are met with older or lower end systems – I have a PC from 2007 which still runs perfectly fine with Windows 10 and Microsoft Office. But he could never run even a kid’s game like Fortnite.

Gamers have a constant thirst for computing power: faster processors, high-resolution graphics, and efficient connections to move data around within the system.

Since the 1990s, the shift to 3D gaming has led to the development of new GPU chips so powerful that they are also used for cryptocurrency mining and artificial intelligence.

Why did you choose to talk about the Tesla as the end point of the book, rather than the iPhone?

We did this to highlight the fact that computing technology now goes far beyond the devices we think of as computers. For decades, cars have contained dozens of networked computers to operate their engines, steering, airbags and other essential functions.

Tesla added a giant tablet-like screen, automatic software downloads and driving automation features to make the cars more visibly computer-like – the Model S was called a “tablet on wheels”.

You probably spend more on the computers in your car than all of your other computing devices combined. But you probably had no idea until chip shortages left car factories around the world idle in 2021, emptying dealership lots and causing car prices to spike hugely.