A century of technology

The computer revolution

two men in suits stand each at one side of a desk, that stands in front of a huge console with lights, buttons, dials and screens.

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.

Konrad Zuse, an old man in a white robe, stands in front of his Z1 computer

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.

a gloved hand holds a cog from an enigma machine

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.

A room is filled with cabinets holding vacuum tubes and wires, connected to each other into one of the first computers.

Up until the 1950s, computers were room-filling monstrosities made up of ceiling-height cabinets filled with vacuum tubes, relays and criss-crossing wires.

a man in a suit holds up a long tape with computer instructions, he stares at it intently through large glasses
Two men operate a room-sized computer, filled with vacuum tubes in cabinets connected with wires and terminating in consoles.

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.

A relatively small black box stand on a black surface, it's front has switches in oranges and yellow colours and reads 'digital PDP 8e'

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.

A white large plastic keyboard is connected to a floppy disk reader, both carrying the colourful apple logo. On the keyboard the words 'Apple II' are visible.
A large plastic keyboard with extra switches and buttons stands on a white surface. On top of it an angular CRT monitor is visible. The logo on the keyboard reads 'Commodore PET Personal Computer'

European companies were able to carve out their share of the market by focusing on advertising and distributing nationally or in select countries.

A large white plastic computer and a large CRT monitor stand in a bright yellow surface with a bright yellow background.

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.

A black plastic keyboard lies on a white surface, and has gray large rubbery buttons. A rainbow graphic swooshes along the side of the keyboard, and the top of the keyboard has the words 'Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Viking Mikrosistemer' embossed on it.
A black keyboard with rubbery buttons lies next to a pile of cassette tapes in cassette boxes and a stack of colourful guidebooks for the ZX Spectrum

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.

A large plastic keyboard with several buttons lies next to a large computer mouse. Behind it, the cardboard box for the Commodore 64 is visible.
A cardboard box that houses a Commodore Amiga 500, a computer that looks like a large plastic keyboard.

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.

A cassette tape in its cassette box with a primarily red and black cover titled 'Paperboy', showing a cartoonish drawing of an arcade cabinet and a boy on a bike delivering papers.
a bunch of cassette tapes in boxes with different names and colourful covers are set next to each other on a white background

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.