Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.
The PC Pioneers looks at how the personal computer came of age. It does not dwell on the computers and technologies themselves but instead celebrates the creative clusters, dynamic duos and inspiring individuals who created and evolved the personal computer – and what an interesting group they were!
Machines should work, people should think.
Thomas J Watson Snr, NCR/IBM
It was all so recent – it is only fifty years ago that the term ‘personal computer’ first appeared as a concept in print.
In 2015 the number of personal computers in use globally passed two billion. It is also forty-five years since the beginnings of the Internet emerged as the ARPANET. Today it has over ten billion devices connected to it – there are fewer than eight billion people in the world!
PCs have very effectively changed every part of all of our lives. They have changed the way that we communicate in business and how we keep in touch with family, friends, old colleagues and school friends. PCs have changed the way that we acquire, buy and play music. They have fundamentally changed the ways in which we capture, manipulate, and distribute our photographs, videos and even catch up with the television shows and movies that we have missed.
Along the way they have altered how we buy books and software, how we swap and sell unwanted and used products, how we review, research and book our travel, accommodation and holidays. They provide the means for us to access news, sports results, weather reports…
PCs also provide us with an instant dictionary, an encyclopaedia, a wealth of trivia facts, a thesaurus, a huge library of eBooks, a translator, a calculator, an address book, an appointments calendar and they can arbitrate by providing answers to our many queries, idle thoughts and family ‘disputes’. As a tool for researching books such as this the PC connected to the World Wide Web proves indispensible.
He forecast, ‘The future lies in designing and selling computers
that people don’t realize are computers at all.’
Later, when his company failed he commented, ‘Briefly I doubted my own infallibility’.
The PC Pioneers looks at the people not their products. Personal computers came about because of an accumulation of ideas and incidents, innovations, individuals and institutions. But if you do try to seek out a single moment in history that ignited the development of the personal computer then implausibly you need to travel back to a gulag labour camp in eastern Siberia.
It was a Ukrainian, convict #N1442, who would provide the vital catalyst that would accelerate real progress towards personal computing. But first, he was a scientist arrested in Stalin’s Great Purge of 1938 among hundreds of thousands who were imprisoned and accused of Trotskyist leanings, espionage, sabotage or conspiracy against the Soviet Union.
Ukranian convict #N1442 was beaten in KGB iN1442 was badly beaten during his interrogation at the KGB headquarters. His jaw was broken and he was convicted to serve a forced labour term in the Kolyma gold mines. This was considered to be a death camp as many died there, some of exposure or malnutrition. Many were simply overworked in the mines or became victims of accidents and beatings by guards and fellow inmates.
Yet he survived all of this to be transferred to a camp where scientists and engineers were set to work on a number of major Soviet projects; he would serve six years in total. Sergey Korolyov, aka N1442, worked on the design of both the Tupolev bomber (Tupolev was a fellow inmate) and the Petlyakov dive bomber, but progressively he moved towards working on rocket science. This had been his interest in his pre-war career at the RNII, the Soviet Jet Propulsion Research Institute. For the success of his work during WWII, Korolyov was given the rank of colonel in the Red Army and was well-decorated. He was a trusted member of the team despatched to Germany just before the end of the war seeking to recover V-2 rocket technology. A whole raft of aerospace engineers was acquired in this manner; the USA and UK netted some $10bn of value in patents and processes by this effort. But the Russians reached the Peenemünde site first, finding it heavily bomb-damaged. Their own operation Osoaviakhim (named after a 1930s Soviet group of aerospace and rocketry enthusiasts) was established to house their ‘imported’ 2,200 specialists in the fields of aviation, nuclear technology, rocketry, electronics, radar technology and chemistry.
Korolyov returned home accompanied by 150 German rocket scientists and helped to set up a new institute in the suburbs of Moscow. From there he took the German V-2 design forward to develop the Soviet R-2, R-3 and R-5 ballistic missiles. But his long-term interest was in using rockets for space travel and he proposed the creation of the R-7 for launching satellites from as early as 1954.
The years 1957 and 1958 were designated by the USA and the international scientific community to be the International Geophysical Year; the ‘year’ actually lasted for eighteen months. As part of this ‘celebration’, US President Dwight D Eisenhower proudly announced on 29 July 1955 that Americans would launch a satellite as part of this special year.
Ten days later the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, aka its Presidium, gave Korolyov the go-ahead to launch a satellite in response to the American announcement.
At his sixth R-7 attempt at launch, its payload was to be ‘Object PS-1’. Helpfully there was some degree of slack as this satellite was a tad smaller than the R-7 had been designed to handle. This sixth R-7 was subsequently named the Sputnik Rocket and its payload became Sputnik 1, the Russian word meaning simply ‘satellite’.
Sputnik 1 achieved an elliptical orbit on 4 October 1957, travelling at 29,000km/hour (18,000mph) and taking 96.2 minutes on each orbit of Earth. Its signal was listened to from all around the world for 22 days until its batteries died; it fell back to earth ninety days later on 4 January 1958.
The Sputnik launch threw the USA into complete disarray, initially not according to US leaders who dismissed it as merely a neat trick. It was the US citizenry that developed a collective hysteria – they still had fresh recollections of the country’s unpreparedness for Pearl Harbour. It was not rocket science to realise that with this technology the Russians would soon be able to deliver a nuclear warhead to any point on the globe.
A leading political aide, trying to muster some government enthusiasm, pointed out that the Russians had taken a whole four years to catch up with the US atomic bomb technology, only nine months to catch up with the hydrogen bomb, but now it was the US that would need to catch up in the space race.
Lyndon B Johnson, Vice President to John F Kennedy, later summed up the feelings of the American public,
‘In the eyes of the world, first in space means first, period; second in space is second in everything.’
The Russians compounded the injury when Sputnik 2 carried the first animal into orbit, a dog called Laika.
These launches generated such fear in the USA that its government was moved unwittingly to fund both the development of the PC and the Internet.
The PC Pioneers is available from Kindle worldwide:
Can you name the individuals featured on the cover?
They are helpfully arranged alphabetically? Answers at the bottom of the page…
Here are the names of those featured:
John Atanasoff, Tim Berners-Lee, Vint Cerf, Michael Dell, Doug Engelbart,
Jay Forrester, Bill Gates, Ted Hoff, Jonathan Ive, Steve Jobs, Leonard Kleinrock,
Butler Lampson, Bob Metcalfe, Bob Noyce, Ken Olsen, Seymour Papert,
Safi Qureshey, Ed Roberts, Clive Sinclair, Linus Torvalds, Masayuki Uemura,
Don Valentine, Steve Wozniak, Eric Xu, Yang Yuanging, Konrad Zuse