- A century of technology
- The computer revolution
There are no red flags, no marching armies. This new revolution, however, universally infiltrates our daily lives. Without being aware of it our society is computerising. And the individual is scared, recalling Orwell's 1984.
In 1981, Belgian national broadcaster RTBF presented the documentary series The Silent Revolution, opening with the haunting quote above. It wanted to show how innovation in computer science had brought with it a revolution that brought the world - willingly or not - into the Information Age. The fallout of that evolution was predicted to continue to impact every aspect of our lives.
Episode of the Series The Silent Revolution, 1981. RTBF. In copyright
By then, however, computers had been improving for 50 years and would prove to be unstoppable. While their invasion of the home might not have been as obvious yet, the importance for industry, administration and entertainment was undeniable. Yet, military history was at the roots of this silent revolution, as major breakthroughs in scientific research opened up the door to a whole new realm of technological innovation.
The maths of secret messages, lecture-presentation from 2014 Rudolf Taschner, TIB - German National Library of Science and Technology. CC BY-NC
In 1936, Alan Turing's paper On Computable Numbers was the first important catalyst driving innovation in computing. That same year, German pioneer of computer science Konrad Zuse started building computers in his parents' home in Berlin. Zuse continued developing more complex machines and his Z3, finished in 1941 in part with funding from the Nazi regime, was the first freely programmable electromechanical computer ever built.
From World War II onwards computers installed on submarines, airplanes, missile trajectories or serving communication purposes would become instrumental in armed conflicts.
Electronic processors can accurately calculate the trajectory of a missile to intercept an enemy bomber, 1951. Istituto Luce - Cinecittà. In copyright
The Bletchley Park codebreakers were also of crucial importance to computer science history. The British developed computers to help decipher messages such as those encrypted by the German Enigma machine. At that point, however, the Enigma-messages had actually already been decrypted by Polish mathematicians. Their work turned out to be paramount to the British coders’ successes.
After the war, many of the great minds that had worked on computing turned their attention to more scholarly ventures, developing special-purpose computers to solve scientific problems. Cambridge University's first computer, EDSAC, was a result of the work of scientists that had all been involved in war radar technology.
Up until the 1950s, computers were room-filling monstrosities made up of ceiling-height cabinets filled with vacuum tubes, relays and criss-crossing wires.
This changed with the invention of transistors at Bell Labs in 1947, which function like vacuum tubes, but are much more compact.
'300.000 km per second', a documentary on the rise of transistors in computer science. ČT, In copyright
Further innovations in integrated circuitry and single-chip CPUs led to a substantial reduction of computer sizes. By the mid-1970s, massive machines had been transformed into so-called mini-computers.
Next to their more ‘domestic’ proportions, the costs of owning a computer now came within reach of the average consumer. The PC or personal computer was born. Soon, three groundbreaking models emerged that would come to be known as the '1977 trinity': the Apple II, Tandy TRS-80 and Commodore PET. They became the most popular personal computers in the US and initiated the ‘personal computer gold rush’ of the 1980s and 1990s.
European companies were able to carve out their share of the market by focusing on advertising and distributing nationally or in select countries.
With computers entering the home, the demand for software increased. As more efforts were invested in creating programs for the personal computer, the development of games took off as well. Computers such as the ZX Spectrum, the Commodore 64 and the BBC Micro would spark a boom in game development in the last decades of the century.
In Europe, computers from the US were rather expensive, leaving space in the market for local manufacturers. In the UK models such as the Acorn / BBC Micro and the Sinclair ZX Spectrum gained massive popularity in the 1980s.
The BBC Micro and the ZX Spectrum both were programmable in BASIC: an easy-to-learn programming language. In the 1980s, schools started to massively invest in personal computers, introducing a whole new generation to computing and programming.
In the UK especially, a cottage industry spawned where kids coded games in their bedrooms, put them on cassette tapes and sold them. Arcade games such as Asteroids or Pacman were shamelessly copied, yet bedroom coders came up with a plethora of innovative and original game concepts as well.
Where US-based computer firms faced stiff competition from the UK, elsewhere in Europe they often took over the market. IBM Compatibles, Atari computers, the Commodore 64 and Amiga reigned, even behind the Iron Curtain.
The low-cost Commodore Amiga 500 and 600 in particular sold well in Eastern Europe, where a cottage industry in programming also started to boom.
A Polish programmer shows the cassette he's selling with his self-made program, suitable for the ZX Spectrum. TVP, In copyright
Copyright law didn't exist until 1994 in socialist Europe, so anyone could copy cassettes for their own use or for trade. Weekend computer markets sprang up where games could be bought, copied or swapped. Game data was even broadcasted over the radio: one of the many ways in which culture and entertainment transcended the Cold War divide.
By the dawn of the new millennium, almost half of all households in Europe had a personal computer. By 2018, that number has risen to almost 90%. The silent revolution seems complete. But inevitability doesn’t equal complacency: even though life without computers seems unfathomable, public debate has a hint of melancholy with computer-sceptics longing back to a time when less was more.