As part of our thirty-year celebration, many of us have spent time looking back with warm affection for the early days of personal computing. There was a feeling of excitement for the changes in technology which truly felt like magic was at work. For those who did not experience this era, you may well not understand how important the “PC Revolution” was.
My first experience with computers, didn’t involve a seeing a computer, a keyboard, or a monitor… what? We would write programs by using a pencil to fill in little boxes on computer cards (rectangular pieces of thin cardboard). You would put an elastic band around your stack of cards, your “program”, and send them off to a distant computer centre. A week later the cards would be returned to you, informing you that your program stopped on card 23, because the corner of the card got bent. You now would prepare a replacement card, put your elastic band around your stack, and send it away again. This process would repeat many times as you debugged your simple program, and after a couple of months you would have your simple program running. Interactive, it was not. Enjoyable? Not for me.
In later years we had access to teletype terminals, which gave you direct access to a remote computer. They did not have a monitor, but would print out responses from the computer. This was a big step forward as it gave you interaction with the computer system. But generally you were just accessing some running program, and not writing software.
For me, the “magic” started to show itself when video terminals began to be available. It appeared to behave largely the way today’s computers do. You ran programs on it, and could write programs, and everything was displayed on a monitor almost instantly. The only catch was you couldn’t take it home, as the actual computer it was connected to was larger than your house, and from home few people would have any way to connect to it. But the future was being hinted at, and coming fast.
By Jason Scott – Flickr: IMG_9976, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29457452
The PC revolution started with a large number of different companies, each making their own PC, with little to no compatibility with software or hardware. Many of the early computers were actually designed to be gaming platforms, but that didn’t detract from their ability to run more serious applications. People were ecstatic that they could afford a computer… a personal version of a multi-million dollar mainframe, which would allow them to compute in their own homes. It was felt that a home PC, in some small way, allowed you to compete with big business, and the government….you had a Computer!
The next big event in the PC Revolution was the move to a standardized platform, starting with the IBM PC, and quickly followed by Compaq and others. By the mid-eighties, you could purchase PC’s from many different companies, and for the most part, your software would run on all of them. This standardization introduced competition in the industry, and drove pricing down so that most people could afford a computer if they wanted one.
I spoke about the “magic” at the beginning. I’m not sure that I can properly describe what that magic was for me, and for many other enthusiasts. It had something to do with being able to write software to do whatever I wanted it to do. For many of us it was as simple as creating a program to catalog recipes… not a big deal, but it rewarded us with the joy of creating something successfully. From the perspective of 2016 this appears trivial, but before the PC came along, it was something you could not do.
Today this enthusiasm, this “magic” is still very much alive. It is alive in the thousands of Open Source software projects that exist, that tens of thousands of people freely give their time and skills to develop. Hardware is not being left out either; there is a huge surge in the use of the Open Source Arduino microcontrollers, and similar ones such as the Raspberry Pi. I don’t want to forget the Maker movement, which is about doing just about anything, with anything, and having fun at the same time. If you are not familiar with any of the above, Google is your friend.
Perhaps the magic is about the joy in people all over the world sharing their enthusiasm for these projects, and taking the time to help others who are interested in learning as well. You can experience the magic if you want. You just have to want it.
Computers are magnificent tools for the realization of our dreams, but no machine can replace the human spark of spirit, compassion, love, and understanding.
Louis V. Gerstner, Jr.
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