Forty Years of the Personal Computer

A little more than ten years ago, a fake image from a 1954 issue of Popular Mechanics went “viral” before that word meant what it means today. It featured a model of what we imagined that they thought a personal computer would look like fifty years later in 2004.

1954 popular mechanics home computer

Whereas in 1954, a personal computer from The Future could have been room-sized and featured a steering wheel, in 2004, I was probably looking at this vision of The Future using a 15-inch Powerbook notebook that fit on (and overheated) my lap. It was a nice chuckle, especially because in 1954 this was probably the smallest anyone could imagine a computer getting.

From what I understand, no one imagined computers getting very small because they were powered by diodes. In 1954, the concept of a diode, or vacuum tube, was hardly state of the art in the 1950s. It dated back to the turn-of-the-century design by John Ambrose Fleming. The tubes were positively enormous and a digital computer required many diodes to work. They required a lot of power and generated a lot of heat. That’s why computers were so damn big and probably wouldn’t have been possible without the advent of air conditioning.

 U.S. Army Photo. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

U.S. Army Photo. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Personal computers escaped the fate of that Popular Mechanics image and its diode-powered mainframe predecessors because they would be powered by microprocessors invented in the early 1970s. If my eighth-grade computer teacher was right, a lightbulb-sized diode would be replaced by a silicon transistor that was smaller than a grain of sand.

Let that sink in: something the size of a lightbulb was replaced by something smaller than a grain of sand.

Those microprocessors would be able to power a microcomputer, and forty years ago this week, they would power the first personal microcomputer: the Altair 8800.

Popular Electronics Cover Jan 1975

What would the Altair 8800 do? From a consumer’s perspective, it did not do much. You could flip switches, and it would return the output with blinking lights. But from a computer nerd’s perspective, it gave you the chance to not only use a computer for as long as you wanted, but it was also one you could use in your own home. 1 It must have felt like you could do anything.

Watching the Home Brew Computer Club in this video, I am reminded of brewing coffee with an Aeropress. No one seems satisfied with the default method way of using it, and you had to figure out a better way to use the damn thing. And everyone has.

  1. Seamless and Amazon Fresh are a direct result of this development. 

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