The Machine That Changed the World: Giant Brains

The Machine That Changed the World is the longest, most comprehensive documentary about the history of computing ever produced, but since its release in 1992, it’s become virtually extinct. Out of print and never released online, the only remaining copies are VHS tapes floating around school libraries or in the homes of fans who dubbed the original shows when they aired.

It’s a whirlwind tour of computing before the Web, with brilliant archival footage and interviews with key players — several of whom passed away since the filming. Jointly produced by WGBH Boston and the BBC, it originally aired in the UK as The Dream Machine before its U.S. premiere in January 1992. Its broadcast was accompanied by a book co-written by the documentary’s producer Jon Palfreman.

With the help of Simon Willison, Jesse Legg, and (unofficially) the Portland State University library, we’ve tracked down and digitized all five parts. This week, I’m uploading them, annotating them with Viddler, and posting them here as streaming Flash video as they’re finished. Also, the complete set is available for download as high-quality MP4 downloads via BitTorrent.

Here’s the first of the five-part series, The Machine That Changed the World. Enjoy!


Note: Like all the other materials I post here, these videos are completely out-of-print and unavailable commercially, digitized from old VHS recordings. If they ever come back into print, or the copyright holders contact me, I’ll take them down immediately.

Part 1: Giant Brains

Notes:

The first part begins with a brief introduction to the series, summarizing the impact of computers on every aspect of our lives, attributed to their versatile nature. The history of computing begins with the original definition of “computers,” human beings like William Shanks that calculated numbers by hand. Frustration with human error led Charles Babbage to develop his difference engine, the first mechanical computer. He later designed the analytical engine, the first general-purpose programmable computer, but it was never finished. Ada Lovelace assisted Babbage with the design and working out programs for the unbuilt machine, making her the first programmer.

100 years later, German engineer Konrad Zuse built the Z1, the first functional general-purpose computer, using binary counting with mechanical telephone relays. During World War II, Zuse wanted to switch to vacuum tubes, but Hitler killed the project because it would take too long. At the University of Pennsylvania, John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert built ENIAC, the first general-purpose electronic computer, to aid in military calculations. They didn’t finish in time to be useful for the war, but soon after, Eckert and Mauchly started the first commercial computer company. It took years before they brought a computer to market, so a British radar engineer named Freddie Williams beat them to building the first computer with stored programs. In Cambridge, Maurice Wilkes built EDSAC, the first practical computer with stored programs. Alan Turing imagined greater things for computers beyond calculations, after seeing the Colossus computer break German codes at Bletchley Park. Actor Derek Jacobi, performing as Alan Turing in “Breaking the Code,” elaborates on Turing’s insights into artificial intelligence. Computers can learn, but will they be intelligent?

Interviews:

Paul Ceruzzi (computer historian), Doron Swade (London Science Museum), Konrad Zuse (inventor of the first functional computer and high-level programming language, died in 1995), Kay Mauchly Antonelli (human computer in WWII and ENIAC programmer, died in 2006), Herman Goldstine (ENIAC developer, died in 2004), J. Presper Eckert (co-inventor of ENIAC, died in 1995), Maurice Wilkes (inventor of EDSAC), Donald Michie (Codebreaker at Bletchley Park)

Up Next

Part 2: Inventing the Future. The rise of commercial computing, from UNIVAC to IBM in the 1950s and 1960s.

83 thoughts on “The Machine That Changed the World: Giant Brains

  1. Awesome! Thank you! This was my FAVORITE documentary as a kid. I still have an old recording on VHS. I’d kill to get an MP3 of the title theme song.

  2. Simply outstanding! I’m so glad you tracked the rest of them down. Really looking forward to the whole series, there are some real treats in store in the other episodes. Great work on the notes as well.

  3. I’m so pumped to watch the first episode. Great job tracking it down! Look forward to reading your annotations/discussion of the next four episodes as well (there’s some real gem material in there). Thanks!

  4. Great post. It would be nice if, in all the credits, you gave a shout-out to the great narrator, Will Lyman. Most know him from Frontline on PBS or a million or so shows on the History Channel.

  5. This makes me IMPOSSIBLY happy! My childhood documentary of choice! Thanks so much for finding these!

  6. Can’t wait for the next episode… This has to be the most comprehensive account of computing history I’ve ever seen… Fantastic stuff!

  7. Remarkable. I’m hugely looking forward to the torrent; watched this as a child in the UK at almost the same time as Simon, and read the book avidly; highlights for me included seeing Englebart’s work for the first time.

    I miss documentaries like this (although I much preferred the UK narration, I must admit).

  8. Brilliant and well indexed with Viddler. 7 seconds to compute Pi to 707 decimals? Try 0.189s using the arctan (read: slower) method and java 1.5 on a MacBook Pro.

  9. Hooray! Thanks for this; very cool.

    Kind of a shame that they’re still claiming Mauchly and Eckert invented the first electronic digital computer when it’s fairly well documented that many of their ideas were actually invented and implemented in Atanasoff and Berry’s earlier computer.

    Still, fun stuff!

  10. I recently watched Bob Cringely’s Triumph of the Nerds Trilogy. It’s weird to witness how fast this starts to look like history.

  11. I really appreciate the time you spent getting this online however can you please enable the option to download this video from viddler.

    Thanks.

  12. Awesome! I really can’t wait to show these to my kids (14 and 7) … a history lesson that should have them transfixed …

    Thank you so much for bringing these back!

  13. I started work in computers late 1963. I learnt to program the ICT 1501 (ex RCA Canada I think) the machine on which we tested our programs belonged to the London Met Police (I think) south of the Thames. About 150 instructions set. A real pig – you got so involved in the coding that you started to forget what your application was. It was a 4-bit character machine, this meant storing alpha characters as zone and numeric components. To print something you needed 6 buffers (zone & numeric for left, center, and right banks on the 120 char line printer) then you had to set a timer to figure out when the required character appeared under the print hammer. Then you had to fire the print hammer for each character on the line. While this was happeneing (a few milliseconds) you went away and did a calculation on some other part of the program – and so on. What fun – what memories!

  14. Whoever made this could you post the whole video in a torrent file and upload it to say, demonoid, btjunkie, or isohunt. That would be great.

  15. It was a delight to watch this video, thanks for the sharing!, I look forward for the torrent 🙂.

  16. These are fantastic. Thanks to everyone for making these treasures available for the masses.

    Sad about Turing.

    So many greats, so many eccentrics.

  17. i have only found two parts. neither are yours.

    can someone direct me to the proper torrent?

    thank you.

  18. When you make the files available, could you dump the tapes in unedited MPEG-2 format? That’s higher quality than the deinterlacing you are probably going to do to squish them down into mpeg-4. MPEG-2 will preserve the interlacing, which can be used not only for a better progressive conversion but also eliminating noise and flutter.

    If you need video processing advice, please feel free to email me. It is important that this historically significant documentary be properly preserved.

  19. Doing some net surfing and came upon this through CNET. Since I’m a history buff, this historical movie on the computer and the thinkers behind it just made my day.

    Thank you for making this important history available to the public at large.

    Mark in sunny San Diego

  20. Come on, people, we need seeders for the torrent! I’ve left it running all day and I haven’t downloaded a single byte.

  21. Wow! Excellent. I’ve been looking for this for a while. Thank you! My brush with computer history was through working with a few people who were there. About 18 years ago I has a supervisor who programmed ENIAC. That is, he helped to draw circuit diagrams for programs. I also worked with a guy who worked on UNIVAC I. He told be about how ridiculously difficult it was to design and build the first tape drives.

  22. Thanks for finding and putting these up, just watched the first one and on the torrent now.

    Gonna watch part 2 tomorrow.

    Excellent find.

  23. Thanks for making this available! I had the subsequent episodes on VHS, but I had missed taping the first one when it aired in 1992. Brilliant series.

  24. Hi,

    This is great I have pestered the BBC about this and they did not want to know me, or about the program. I have some eps on VHS but are missing 5 and 6.

    Thanks again, Mark in Melbourne, Australia.

  25. Thank you!!! I have been looking for these for eons… I could not even purchase them, as that was my original intention. PBS no longer carries this. I did happen to find the first 2 of 5 on a torrent site last year, and the second one did not even finish downloading before the torrent disapeared..

    Thank you again! You have done a service to geeks everywhere.

  26. This is one of the best documentaries I’ve seen and recommend it to anyone who has a sense of history–it will impact us for years to come. I hope some enterprising producer will carry on where this left off–it would make an interesting annual special for any network that gives us updates into the world of science.

  27. It is very interesting to konow about computer how in 40 years have changed and who were the firts people to start this technology.That was a great information.

    Thanks.

  28. I watched this on our PBS channel in 1992 when it originally aired. At the time I’m not sure if I owned a VCR yet. But I did not have the foresight to record it. Then it never aired again!

    Later on I asked WGBH Boston about it and there were no plans to release it on video. I was quite upset about that.

    So what you have done here is fantastic.

    Last night I found your Torrent file, so I’m very happy. Thank you very much for all your time and effort on this project.

    My father, who I’m sure saw this in 1992, will enjoy it again. He has been working with computers since 1962.

    Thanks!

  29. @John: I don’t know if you are still reading this, since it was in June when you posted, but anyhow, I just attended a talk and slide show on ENIAC, yesterday by John Mauchly’s son.

    If I’m remembering yesterday’s talk properly, Atanasoff and Berry’s machine was not a computer in the true sense of the term, nor was it ever proven to actually work. This according to the research Mr. Mauchly did. He is very much into the history of it all, since his father was such an important figure.

  30. Sorry, I forgot to fill in the name and email fields in my last post. But that was me!

    Thanks again.

  31. I thank you very much for this web site. For years I nursed my betamax machine and the accompanying five tapes along until the tapes themselves were almost transparent or taped ad infinitum. The machine finally failed or I just ran out of parts to keep it going. This was the one piece of video history that I constantly shared with my classes in computers until I could no longer. I have had enjoyable week watching each episode again and this website is definitely marked on my computer.

  32. Thank you so much. I have a video from the first time it aired on PBS. Now the video is so bad I could no longer use it. I teach computer classes in a Middle School and this video is much more interesting than I am.

  33. Everybody seems to appreciate that you save those videos from extinction.

    It’s should be a strong warning against content “protected” with DRM.

  34. I really love the video it’s so interesting. The first Computer!? Wow….do they have this video on DVD? I want would really love to keep this in my collection…By the way, who is the music artist for the intro and credits theme? It sounds so good!

  35. Thank you so much for posting this! I watched these when I was a kid, and all I could remember years later was the end sequence of the robot arm disassembling the blocks and then unplugging itself. That image stuck with me but it was years before I even found the title of the program, and then of course it wasn’t available. I’ll really enjoy watching these again!

  36. It means so much to me that you did this. My wife has known me for 12 years and this documentary is like a part of our mythos as this unattainable treasure that I have missed from my youth for so many years. This whole time I’ve held on to two moldy old VHS tapes of just parts 2 and 3 that I recorded from PBS in 92.

    Around 2002 I attempted to find copies from the creators themselves–I even had a nice chat with one of them on the phone. But eventually life got in the way, and I failed get copies.

    What you have done for all of us is much bigger than you probably ever realized while you were doing it. I can, quite literally, cross off my “list of things that I hope happen within my lifetime”: get a clean copy of The Machine That Changed The World. Thank you so so much.

  37. In response to Ivan:

    Regarding the Atanassof Berry Computer (ABC), there has been considerable debate about whether it should be given credit as the first digital electronic computer. As I understand it, in a case attempting to invalidate some patent claims, a judge (who was not a geek as I understand it) bought the argument that the ABC was prior art. This suit, funded by a bunch of computer companies who didn’t want to pay for IP, led to (again, in my opinion) a distortion of the history.

    In any case, one can certainly argue that ENIAC was the machine that influenced the evolution of computing in a way that the ABC certainly did not. In some sense, one could argue that history would not be so different had the ABC not existed. Not so for the ENIAC.

    With that in mind I can certainly understand why, with limited time in a 1-hour documentary, the film makers decided not to include it.

  38. Very interesting and well done. I see that computer used to have human meaning, I wonder if “human” will change in meaning as computers evolve.

  39. Thank you so much, I have been looking for this doc (even contacted PBS to see if it was available for sale) for a long time. It might seem on the surface to be dated by now, but most if it is historical. A wonderful snapshot of a time before we took this tech for granted.

  40. Hi,

    I don’t know how you pulled it off but I am sure glad you did.

    I have been hunting this series after first seeing it years ago on PBS. I simply had no joy locating it. Even corresponding with PBS. I was also startled by the dearth of any references to it on the net.

    Many and hearty thanks for taking the time and trouble to locate it and making it readily available to all as it should be.

    Ross Kelly

    St. John’s Newfoundland

  41. WOW you did a great job Thanks very much. I have been looking for this for years. The quality is very good I am shocked.

    Thanks you, Thank you, Thanks You,

    Rick

  42. I live in Brazil and not know speech english still good… you don´t know one version of this documentary in portuguese? thanks for any instruction

  43. I’ve been showing parts of this important and still relevant documentary series for quite a few years in one of the courses I teach. I digitized the tapes because they were wearing out and there’s no source to purchase replacements. Thanks for doing the same and providing access to them via the internet and for the intense and very useful work you’ve done to enhance their usability for study and research. I’ve included a hyperlink to your website for my students.

  44. The producer of this film is Jon Palreyman. Here is his info: Jon Palfreman

    * KEZI Distinguished Professor of Broadcast Journalism

    308 Allen Hall

    1275 University of Oregon

    Eugene, OR 97403

    Email: jonp@uoregon.edu

    Phone: (541) 346-4782

  45. I have a nice collection of computer related programs on dvdr for sale or trade.

    dwillsxbr@gmail.com

    The Machine That Changed The World 1992 5 DVD WGBH

    Triumph of The Nerds. 150 min Host Robert Cringely. 1996 3 dvd

    Nerds 2.0.1 A Brief History of the Internet. Host Robert Cringely. 1998 180 min 3 dvd

    Pirates of Silicon Valley 1999 TNT 97 min. 1 dvd

    Deathbed Vigil – The last days of Commodore 1994 2 hr dvd

    Commodore 64 Training Tape Host Jim Butterfield 1983 2 hr dvd

    Once Upon Atari 1999 4 Episodes 2 hr DVD

  46. nice educational video.. 🙂

  47. Thanks for the sharing of this wonderful and educational video.

    Will anybody be able to share the great music and score at the beginning and end of each episode?

  48. Thanks, fantastic history giving more than I realized. I never knew that Humans were called computers and I was captured by the efforts people had to go through in order to put together much needed data to function for certain desired events. I hope I can show my 13 year old grandson this video, he wants to be a computer scientist.

  49. Loved this doc. I love history any thing historical Im only 15 and I was so fasinated by all this information that I don’t think i’ll ever take the electronics of my time for granted

  50. I had no idea all that had been involved in getting the computer industry moving like it did. Very good documentary, glad I watched it.

  51. I loved this documentary! Thank you for doing this! I will enjoy watching it again. Thank you again.

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