The Machine That Changed the World documentary
Reading time: 4 minutes
The Machine That Changed the World is a comprehensive documentary about the history of computing produced in 1992. Here are the highlights of the series.
Part 1: Giant Brains
- Charles Babbage has the idea of the 'difference engine', the first mechanical computer while working with human computers who made calculations by hand.
- 100 years later, German engineer Konrad Zuse built the first functional computer using binary counting from mechanical telephone relays.
- John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert built ENIAC, the first general-purpose electronic computer using vacuum tubes. They went on to start the first commercial computer company making computers for scientists.
- Alan Turing's experience as a codebreaker lead him to build Colossus, the first computer that worked beyond calculating arithmetic. He later developed another computer that worked as a word processor. He compared the computer to the human brain and invented the concept of computer programs.
Part 2: Inventing the Future
- IBM makes the first truly mass-produced computer, selling one thousand during the early 1950's. Even though it was slower than its UNIVAC competitor, it was easier to use.
- Writing software for the computers to understand commands was made easier with programming languages. First, FORTRAN was developed for scientists and mathematicians to write equations. Then COBOL for businesses which was a very English-oriented way to write a program.
- Computers start showing up in factories and Automation taking over people's jobs becomes a burning issue. But employment actually rises as new jobs and industries are being created because of computers.
- The transistor replaces vacuum tubes in computers which allows them to be made much more complex and powerful. But wiring is an issue until the invention of integrated circuits in 1959. Even though they were far too expensive initially, during the next ten years, the cost drops to pennies while power increases a thousand fold.
- NASA builds the smallest computer for its power using integrated circuits in 1969 for the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. A new generation is born that never knows a world without space travel and computers.
Part 3: The Paperback Computer
- The Xerox PARC research facility founded in 1970, starts to look at ways to 'humanize computers' for the ordinary user. Studying how kids learn from their environment with the intuitive senses of touch and visuals, the engineering team creates an 'illusion of reality' and develops the Desktop interface. They had a working concept called the Alto by 1973 but was never made into a product since it didn't fit into Xerox's business model.
- The Altair computer kit comes out for technical hobbyists to put together their own computers forming clubs across the nation and growing large enough for a convention in 1976. Startup companies formed including Apple by fellow-hobbyists Steve Jobs and Steven Wozniak. With the help of Mike Markkula, Apple turns into the fastest growing company in history.
- The personal computer industry takes off with more people using computers, but because of its command-based interface, many find it very frustrating to use. In 1984, Apple releases the Macintosh, the first Graphical User Interface personal computer which Steve Jobs gets the idea for from visiting Xerox PARC and seeing their Alto concept.
- As the software for computers becomes a crucial part of reaching new audiences, a new market is formed where programmers like Bill Gates and Microsoft make only computers programs for regular people to do many different things, all on the same machine.
- Kids are able to quickly figure out how to interact with personal computers as everyday objects and are now a part of the culture of a new generation. Expanding on the use of senses, the documentary concludes by asking if virtual reality in 3D space would be the next natural user interface.
Part 4: The Thinking Machine
- Making a computer see objects and move was harder than previously thought, requiring a lot of computational power.
- Understanding language and talking to a computer was also attempted, leading to translations made by computers.
- Eventually, the computer was used for very focused tasks which made it useful in expert areas that were often routine.
- Machine learning was another approach to trying to crack the artificial intelligence code, by feeding the computer the information it needed to know.
Part 5: The World At Your Fingertips
- Computers talking with each other, and digitizing information leading to all the information in the world stored digitally.
- Connected to the world via the computer network changes the way we communicate with the world, like changing financial trading.
- Scientists connect to share knowledge on interconnected computers they call the Internet.
- All your information is now stored on computers, with sometimes faulty data. Employee monitoring also becomes a privacy issue.