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A Brief History of the History of Computer History

Posted by Nathan Strum, 14 July 2012 · 1,209 views

Video Game Ramblings
As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently rented Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview from iTunes. Here's the trailer:


I'll admit to having a fascination with the history of computers, for a couple of reasons. First of all, my dad worked as a computer programmer, so even from the earliest days I was at least peripherally aware of things like punch cards and ASCII printouts on continuous feed paper (someone at his work would print out Peanuts calendars in ASCII each year, and I'd get one). Secondly, I grew up at just the right time where personal computers (and especially videogames) came into existence and became consumer products.

I always had a fascination with them, and although I never learned to program, I always managed to find someone to use them. In most cases, it was to draw with - programming graphics into a TRS-80 or Apple II using BASIC commands. This was years before the Macintosh. But it was the closest I could get to creating videogames - by re-creating the graphics of my favorite games (or occasionally, of games I wanted to make myself). Early in college, I began to write term papers using a friend's TRS-80 - my first experience with word processing, and also catastrophic data loss. The TRS-80 barfed up the paper I'd written, yet somehow, my friend managed to recover it. Still not sure how exactly. Seems to me he managed to recover it from RAM, but this was nearly 30 years ago now, so my memory (pun not intended) is a bit fuzzy. Back then, I didn't really know much about how computers worked. I just knew they were cool, and I wanted to use them.

I began using Macs in 1988 and got quite good at it. It helped me land my first job as a professional artist, in fact. I'd been fascinated with Macs since first seeing one in 1984, since that was the first computer that I felt had been made for me. It had the user in mind - not the hobbyist, programmer, business person, etc. I could pick up the mouse, and just draw with it. It was pretty awesome, and incredibly revolutionary. So when I began using them in earnest, I became a Mac loyalist, and began following what the company was doing. Where it had been, what it was working on, etc.

In 1995, Bob Cringely created the documentary Triumph of the Nerds (based on his book Accidental Empires), which outlined the history of the personal computer. Since I had grown up in parallel with that history, it was riveting. All of the things I had seen happen on the surface had an amazing, rich, bizarre, and at times unbelievable history behind them. This is the documentary from which Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview comes from, and it's well-worth watching.

The Lost Interview takes place about 10 years after he left Apple, and about a year before returning to it. At the time of the interview, he was far removed from Apple, and Apple was on the verge of bankruptcy. What makes this interview so fascinating, is listening to his thoughts on what makes successful products and businesses, his heartbrokenness over what Apple had become, where the industry should go, and knowing that at that time, he had no idea he'd be returning to helm Apple. In hindsight, seeing how that all played out in Apple's resurgence, making it one of the biggest success stories in the entire world, is incredibly compelling.

So if you're fascinated by the history of computers, as I am, I'd recommend that you rent the interview from iTunes. Maybe it'll show up on Netflix someday, or online, but for now, it's still not a bad deal for $3.99.

Meanwhile, I'd also highly recommend watching Triumph of the Nerds, if you haven't already seen it. While a bit dated now, the history of how the personal computer industry, Apple, the PC and Microsoft came into existence is really worthwhile, and it's always interesting to see how predictions of that time either came true, or failed miserably.

It's available on VHS and DVD (both of which I have), and online:

Triumph of the Nerds - pt. 1: Impressing Their Friends


Triumph of the Nerds - pt. 2: Riding The Bear


Triumph of the Nerds - pt. 3: Great Artists Steal


Another excellent documentary is The Machine That Changed the World. Older than Triumph by several years, it's even more dated, but again - the history is what this is about, not what was current at the time it was produced (1992). In this case, it documents the entire history of computers, not just the personal computer. It's incredible to see how far we've come in such a short time. And again, even though it's now 20 years old, it's interesting to see what they thought the future might bring, and what state-of-the-art was back then (and yes... I still remember just how impressive that state-of-the-art was).

The Machine That Changed the World - pt. 1: Giant Brains


The Machine That Changed the World - pt. 2: Inventing The Future


The Machine that Changed the World - pt.3: The Paperback Computer


The Machine that Changed the World - pt. 4: The Thinking Machine


The Machine that Changed the World - pt. 5: The World at Your Fingertips


There was also a sequel to Triumph of the Nerds - Nerds 2.0.1: A Brief History of the Internet - documenting the rise of the internet. While I don't find it quite as compelling, it is interesting to see the likes of Amazon during their infancy. All I really remember is that it all happened so fast.

The blog software (grumble) won't let me post all of the videos here, but here are the links (also available on VHS):

Nerds 2.0.1: Networking the Nerds

Nerds 2.0.1: Serving the suits

Nerds 2.0.1: Wiring the world