The Machine That Changed the World: The Paperback Computer

The third episode of The Machine That Changed the World covers the development of the personal computer and the modern graphical user interface, which made computing easy to use for everyone. Highlights include interviews with Apple’s Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, drawing with a computer in 1963, great footage from Xerox PARC, and some 1992-era predictions of the future from Apple and others.

(Previously: Part 1, Part 2.)


Like the books of the Middle Ages, early computers were large, extremely expensive, and maintained by a select few. It seemed unlikely they’d be commonplace, partly because they were so difficult to use. Developing software was extremely tedious, the interface limited to writing instructions on punched cards. Ivan Sutherland’s revolutionary Sketchpad was the first graphical user interface, pioneering the fields of interactive computing, computer-aided drawing, and object-oriented programming. Douglas Engelbart‘s NLS, demonstrated in the Mother of All Demos from 1968, demonstrated for the first time several concepts that would become commonplace: the mouse, CRT display, windowing systems, hypertext, videoconferencing, collaborative editing, screen sharing, word processing, and a search engine ordering by relevance. Xerox, realizing computers might lead to paperless communication, created the PARC research laboratory to make computers easy to use. They unified several concepts into a usable computer environment, the Xerox Alto, inventing the modern GUI paradigm of folders, files, and documents, along with Ethernet, Smalltalk, WYSIWIG editing, and the laser printer. Xerox marketed the Xerox Star, but it was expensive and a commercial failure.

In 1971, the invention of the microprocessor led to affordable computer kits like the Altair 8800. Groups of computer hobbyists like the Homebrew Computer Club led to a cottage industry of hardware and software startups, including the founders of Apple Computer. Their Apple I in 1976 and the Apple II in 1977 were huge hits. The success of the personal computer, including the Commodore PET, Atari 400/800, and TRS-80, inspired IBM to enter the market with the PC in 1981. They soon dominated the industry. Inspired by the work at Xerox PARC, Apple responded with the Macintosh, the first successful mass-produced computer with a mouse and GUI.

Software enabled computers to become diverse machines, able to be used for business use, flight simulators, music, illustration, or anything else that could be imagined. Pure software companies like Lotus and Microsoft became tremendously successful, making their founders and early employees very rich. Those using computers required no knowledge of how it worked, including an entire generation raised on computers as familiar objects. The episode concludes with some excellent conceptual designs of future computers from Apple, and a discussion of the potential uses of virtual reality in future computing.


Canon John Tiller (Library Master, Hereford Cathedral), Mitch Kapor (Founder, Lotus), Robert Taylor (Xerox PARC), Ted Nelson (Creator, Project Xanadu), Douglas Engelbart, Larry Tesler (Xerox PARC), Alan Kay (Xerox PARC), Ted Hoff (Co-inventor, microprocessor), Steve Jobs (Cofounder, Apple), Steve Wozniak (Cofounder, Apple), Mike Markkula (Investor, Apple), Lee Felsenstein (Designer, Osborne 1), Bill Gates (Chairman, Microsoft), Chris Peters (Manager, Office), Anne Meyer (Center for Applied Special Tech.), Dr. Henry Fuchs (UNC, Chapel Hill), Dr. Jane Richards (UNC, Chapel Hill), Dr. Frederick P. Brooks, Jr (UNC, Chapel Hill)

Up next…

Part 4: The Thinking Machine. The history of artificial intelligence, from Minsky to neural networks.


    Any word on that torrent? I’m itching to take these to my uncle’s house and watch them.

    @Cristiano – The title music was stuck in my head for a long time. I’d love to know if it was original to the series or not.

    Thanks for your great work, Andy. I hadn’t seen this before – no TV since 83.

    It was nice to see Alan Kay again. He was an Atari Fellow in the early 80s. A bright and affable guy, as seen in the video, but he was a fish out of water at Atari. He kept trying to pitch Dynabook, his ebook-style reader concept that would only display electronic books. It didn’t go anywhere precisely because we couldn’t figure out why a general purpose computer couldn’t do the same job at least as well as a Dynabook.

    I remember watching this as a 12-year old, and thinking how stupid that kid was for not knowing how much milk there was in his cup.

    Now, I am 29. And that kid is still dumb.

    Thanks for putting this up, by the way – I loved this documentary.

    Thank you for making this series available. I found a copy of it in my basement on VHS and had my daughter surf the web for a copy.

    I joined Microsoft in 1987 and lived through much of this history. I remember the sense we felt of changing the world.

    Like Andy Baio, I have always taken “Stellae matutinae radius exoritur” to be a work of Peter Howell, since he is the only musician mentioned in the credits.

    Some of the phrases in the lyric derive from medieval sources, but the lyric in its present form may be original to Howell.

    Great series. However, there a whole historical branch missing and that is calculators, electronic, programmable computers which paralleled and some times were ahead of what was happening in the personal computer world. Spreadsheets, combination of interpretative formulae-based programming and compiled formating. Networking (Cambridge Ring like), intelligent peripherals. multi-platter parallel access floppy disks etc. were happening in the programmable computer world of Compucorp, Monroe (where I worked), Olivetti, Wang and HP.

    I visited Apple before the Apple II was introduced and Commodore at the time of the PET 2001 and gave them requirements were were trying to satisfy.

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