The Machine That Changed the World: Inventing the Future

The first part of The Machine That Changed the World covered the earliest roots of computing, from Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace in the 1800s to the first working computers of the 1940s. The second part, “Inventing the Future,” picks up the story of ENIAC’s creators as they embark on building the first commercial computer company in 1950, and ends with the moon landing in 1969 and the beginning of the Silicon Valley.


Shortly after the war ended, ENIAC‘s creators founded the first commercial computer company, the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation in 1946. The early history of the company’s funding and progress is told through interviews and personal home videos. They underestimated the cost and time to build UNIVAC I, their new computer for the US Census Bureau, quickly sending the company into financial trouble. Meanwhile, in London, the J. Lyons and Co. food empire teamed up with the EDSAC developers at Cambridge to build LEO, their own computer to manage inventory and payroll. It was a huge success, inspiring Lyons to start building computers for other companies.

The Eckert-Mauchly company was in trouble, with several high-profile Defense Department contracts withdrawn because of a mistaken belief that John Mauchly had Communist ties. After several attempts to save the company, the company was sold to Remington-Rand in 1950. The company, then focused on electric razors and business machines, gave UNIVAC its television debut by tabulating live returns during the 1952 presidential election. To CBS’s amazement, it accurately predicted an Eisenhower landslide with only 1% of the vote. UNIVAC soon made appearances in movies and cartoons, leading to more business.

IBM was late to enter the computing business, though they’d built the massive SSEC in 1948 for scientific research. When the US Census ordered a UNIVAC, Thomas Watson, Jr. recognized the threat to the tabulating machine business. IBM introduced their first commercial business computers in 1953, the mass-produced IBM 650. While inferior technology, it soon dominated the market with their strong sales force, relative affordability, and integration with existing tabulating machines. In 1956, IBM soared past Remington-Rand to become the largest computer company in the world. By 1960, IBM captured 75% of the US computer market.

But developing software for these systems often cost several times the hardware itself, because programming was so difficult and programmers were hard to find. FORTRAN was one of the first higher-level languages, designed for scientists and mathematicians. It didn’t work well for business use, so COBOL soon followed. This led to wider adoption in different industries, as software was developed that could automate human labor. “Automation” become a serious fear, as humans were afraid they’d lose their jobs to machines. Across the country, companies like Bank of America (with ERMA) were eliminating thousands of tedious tabulating jobs with a single computer, though the country’s prosperity and booming job market tempered some of that fear.

In the ’50s, vacuum tubes were an essential component of the electronics industry, located in every computer, radio, and television. Transistors meant that far more complex computers could be designed, but couldn’t be built because wiring them together was a logistical nightmare. The “tyranny of numbers” was solved in 1959 with the first working integrated circuit, developed and introduced independently by both Texas Instruments and Fairchild. But ICs were virtually ignored until adopted by NASA and the military for use in lunar landers, guided missiles, and jets. Electronics manufacturers soon realized the ability to mass-produce ICs. Within a decade, ICs cost pennies to produce while becoming a thousand times more powerful. The result was the birth of the Silicon Valley and a reborn electronics industry.


Ted Withington (network engineer, industry analyst), Paul Ceruzzi (Smithsonian), J. Presper Eckert (ENIAC co-inventor, died 1995), Morris Hansen (former US Census Bureau, died 1990), John Pinkerton (Chief Engineer, LEO, died 1997), Thomas J. Watson, Jr. (Chairman Emeritus, IBM, died 1993), James W. Birkenstock (retired Vice President, IBM, died 2003), Jean Sammet (programming language historian), Dick Davis (retired Senior V.P., Bank of America), Robert Noyce (co-inventor, integrated circuit, died 1990), Gordon Moore (former Chairman of the Board, Intel), Steve Wozniak (Co-founder, Apple)

Up Next…

Part 3: The Paperback Computer. The development of the personal computer and user interfaces, from Doug Engelbart and Xerox PARC to the Apple and IBM PCs.

14 thoughts on “The Machine That Changed the World: Inventing the Future

  1. Thanks for your archival work – I am thoroughly enjoying it. It is so great to see interviews with luminaries like J.P. Eckert who are no longer with us.

  2. OK, I need to see part three now but there is no URL to it. Anyone out there know how to get to it? What a great series.

  3. Enjoying this much… thanks for the effort to put it before us. My first computer was a science project based on relays… I got to program Fortran punch cards at university in the ’70s… owned a Radio Shack Model One, cassette-tape storage etc.

    My favorite computer moment… getting to meet Grace Hopper at Atlanta Hartsfield Int’l Airport, around 1986… lit her cigarette… what a woman! I was hoping (hopping?) to see her in this series somewhere…

  4. I have been looking for these series for ages now. Thanks for posting them here.

    Look forward to the torrents.

  5. Thank you so VERY much for putting this up. This is an extraordinary documentary, and I am another one of those people who has pestered PBS and WGBH for years about making copies available. A few years ago, I found a (not very good) VHS copy at a library some distance away but was able to borrow it long enough to make my own (even worse) copies. What a relief to download your nicely digitized versions! I am a computer science teacher and these films are still without equal. Thank you!!!

  6. I have this recorded on VHS tape when it 1st was on TV. It is a super video. There is 5 hours of them about the 1st 1/2 way is the best very good. the other 1/2 is not very good.

    I don’t see why they don’t have this on DVD? I guess it’s to old. I looked on line a lot and never found were you can buy it on DVD not even on the PBS web pages!

    This tells how computers started very good. They need to update it. It be neat to bring it out on DVD with about one more hour of it being updated telling about computers today.

    -Raymond Day

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