The Plot Thickens

Published Date
01 - Jun - 2006
| Last Updated
01 - Jun - 2006
The Plot Thickens
We promised this wouldn't be a history lesson-and it won't be. So we won't talk about the development of ARPANET and other experimental networks such as ALOHAnet-we'll make do by saying that most of the major foundations for the Internet were laid down in this decade: proposals, papers, protocols, and what not. It all developed at a mind-boggling pace-ARPANET was commissioned by the Department of Defense in 1969 to further research into networks, and in 1984, the Domain Name System was already in place! That's about 15 years from "ancient" to "modern"-and in another 15 years, the Internet was pretty much what it is now.

Networks, disks, processors, printers, programming, phones-you name it-it all happened in this decade! Naturally, with the components being developed, the personal computer-essentially a convergence of all these-had to emerge. So what enabled the quick transition from computers such as the PDP-1 to the PC as we know it? Microprocessors and disks come to mind first.

1971 saw the development of Intel's 4-bit 4004, which was quaintly dubbed "a computer on a chip" at the time. Different sources state different things about what was the first this and the first that, and you'll all too often come across the phrase "widely considered"! And so, well, The Intel 4004 is widely considered the world's first "commercial single-chip microprocessor." It was designed to be just a component of a calculator, but people figured it could be used for many other things. For example, it could replace certain logic chips. As more and more uses were found for the 4004, people realised that the microprocessor had tremendous potential. A trend began-that of developing more and more sophisticated microprocessors; there we see the beginnings of today's zillion-dollar microprocessor industry. However, it wasn't the 4004 that started the microcomputer revolution: the distinction is "widely considered" to belong to the 8080.

Also at the beginning of the decade, IBM introduced a floppy disk drive called the 23FD. It used a read-only 8-inch plastic disk, which held 0.816 MB. It was the first flexible disk drive-no, not "widely considered": it really was! The 5¼" flexible disk drive and diskette were introduced later, in 1976. You can imagine the impact of portable disks at a time when there were no LANs, and in 1973 came the Winchester hard disk, also by IBM.

Most hard disks today are basically Winchester disks: the Winchester was the first disk to use a "sealed head/disk assembly," which is what we use today. This wasn't the first hard disk, though: the 5 MB IBM 350 RAMAC of 1956 was the first commercial hard disk. And to clear the air a bit, the first hard disk is widely considered to be the IBM 350 Disk File of 1955.

AI wasn't as much in vogue as in the '60s. In fact, some felt they'd been wasting their time on the whole thing. Still, some things were happening: a robot called Shakey was the first to use AI for navigation. PROLOG-an important language for AI programming, more in vogue in Europe than in the US-was developed. In 1974, the first computer chess tournament was held in Stockholm. And in 1979, backgammon player Luigi Villa-then the world champion-officially became the first champion of a board game to be beaten by a computer.

Back to networks: Ray Tomlinson, the man who decided upon the "@" sign for e-mail addresses, sent the first network e-mail in 1971. As Tomlinson puts it, "'Network' should be included because there were many earlier instances of e-mail within a single machine." We can't figure why, though! A year later, the first computer-to-computer chat took place over ARPANET. It was between two AI programs, "Parry" and "Doctor." Parry was psychotic, and Doctor was, well, a Doctor-we have no details on whether Parry was restored to good health.
Then, of course, there's Ethernet. In 1973, Robert Metcalfe's PhD thesis at Harvard outlined the idea. The same year, after he joined Xerox's PARC as a researcher, he was required to build a networking system for the Center's computers. The company wanted the network because they were building the first laser printer, and wanted to be able to share the printer amongst all PARC computers. Necessity is the mother of… Metcalfe, therefore, had two things to achieve: a fast enough network to drive the fast printer, and a connectivity system that could scale up to hundreds of computers.

It is "generally considered" that Ethernet was invented in May of 1973, but Metcalfe claims Ethernet was invented gradually over several years. We don't need to tell you how much this landmark invention meant: in three words, it revolutionised networking.

Coming to processors, Intel's 8008, in 1972, was the first 8-bit microprocessor. It was soon replaced by the 8080, in 1974, which was the beginning of a revolution. Michael Kanellos of CNET sums it up: "The breakthrough moment for microprocessing came in 1974, according to many, with the 8080 processor. Not only did the chip feature a more complex instruction set, it came in a package with 40 pins, two innovations that greatly expanded its capabilities." The transition to 16-bit happened in 1978: Intel's 8086 saw the light that year.

From processors to personal computers: the story is long and complex, and is chock-full of "generally believed"-you'd do well to visit pc.shtml for a lowdown on which "The First Personal Computer" was. But here, we should mention the French Micral, arguably the first commercial, non-kit, personal computer based on a microprocessor, the Intel 8008. Now that's a lot of qualifications, but you'll notice that it is a first of sorts. Then in 1975 came the Altair 8800, as a kit. Some call it the first personal computer; some call it the first microcomputer. Some say it's neither. Whatever the case, it was a first of some sort! Specs: 2 MHz Intel 8080, 256 bytes RAM.

Enter Apple. The two Steves-Jobs and Wozniak-designed and built the Apple I in 1976. It wasn't easy. Jobs first had to persuade a computer store to buy his creation, and the store ended up ordering 50 units at $500 each. He then went about obtaining the components. This must not have been fun: he had to sell some of his stuff to buy them. And after the parts were procured, Wozniak and a friend called Ronald Wayne assembled the Apple I. It was the first personal computer with a keyboard and which ran on a microprocessor, while also having a connection to a monitor. Too many qualifications, and a better reason for mentioning it is probably that the Apple I was the first personal computer sold in fully-assembled form.

Succeeding the Apple I was-no prizes-the Apple II: it was a hit, partly because it was capable of being hooked up to a colour TV set. Colour and high-res graphics were a first, as were its sound capabilities. Some say (and some don't) that the Apple II was "the beginning of the personal computer revolution." Which, actually, many things were-take your pick!
Other highlights of the decade included the development of the inkjet as well as the laser printer. By HP, right? In fact, that's what even President G H W Bush believed: in a certain speech, he congratulated HP engineers for having invented the laser printer. HP actually came up with the LaserJet in 1984. It's Xerox that invented the laser printer. (Perhaps we should qualify that with a "generally considered.")

People discovered home entertainment-and theatres lost their monopoly on movie lovers-when the VCR was invented in 1970. In 1972, Seymour Cray founded Cray Research and introduced the first successful commercial supercomputer, and megalomaniacally named it the Cray I. And in 1977, Bell Labs built a prototype cell phone system in Chicago, and tested the system the next year. The year after that, the first commercial cell phone system was started in Tokyo. Last but not least-can we leave out mention of Microsoft, founded in 1977 by Bill Gates and Paul Allen?

As we move on to the 80s, we note that much of what we're familiar with today had been developed by 1979, at least in rudimentary form. There was colour graphics, there was 16-bit processors, there was the hard disk. The stage was set for everyman's PC.  

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