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