Book traces evolution of computer from unusual to ubiquitous

Over the last 50 years, the computer has been transformed from a hulking scientific super-tool to a diverse family of devices that billions rely on to play games, shop, stream entertainment and communicate.

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

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

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

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

Since then, computers have been transformed so many times – not just getting cheaper, faster and smaller but being fundamentally reinvented to serve different groups of users and carry out different tasks.

The stories, for example, of scientific, business, and military computing took place in parallel or overlapped. So, we decided to make each chapter the story of one such transformation: “The Computer Becomes a Communications Medium” for example, or “The Computer Becomes Office Equipment.”

What makes the development of the computer distinct from other technologies?

The computer’s journey from its origin as scientific instrument to a uniquely flexible general-purpose technology seems unique in the history of technology.

Typically, technologies change rapidly during their early years and then stabilize. Computers kept on changing fundamentally in their cost, capabilities, applications, users and physical formats for decade after decade after decade.

What are a few of the digital devices have come out of the evolution of computers that you discuss in the book? 

From the 1970s onward the flood of cheap microprocessor chips made it possible to hide computers away inside consumer devices such as music synthesizers, toys like Speak & Spell or Simon, and pocket calculators. By the early 2000s a tech enthusiast might carry a GPS unit, 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.

Within the last decade smartphones replaced all those devices, though there are still plenty of computers in your home disguised as televisions, home routers, video disk players and games consoles.

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

Big companies had been using computers since the 1950s, but in data processing centers. Office workers saw stacks of computer printouts, but not computers. That started 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 compelling applications were spreadsheet programs: first VisiCalc (1979) and the Lotus 1-2-3 (1983).

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

What have gamers contributed to the development of the computer?

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

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

Since the 1990s, the shift to 3D games drove the development of new graphics processor chips so powerful they are also used for cryptocurrency mining and artificial intelligence.

Why did you choose to discuss the Tesla as the book’s endpoint, rather than the iPhone? 

We did that to underline the fact that computer technology now goes far beyond the devices we think of as computers. For decades cars have contained dozens of networked computers to run their engines, steering, air bags and other core functions.

Tesla added a giant tablet-like screen, automatic software downloads and driving automation features to make 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 on all your other computer devices combined. But likely you had no idea of this until chip shortages left car factories around the world idle in 2021, emptying dealer lots and causing a huge spike in car prices.

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