Media Technology and Society: A History: From the Telegraph to the Internet

By Brian Winston | Go to book overview

12

THE COMING OF THE MICROCOMPUTER

SUPPRESSION REVISITED: THE COMPUTER INDUSTRY

During the 1950s, computers were enormously expensive valved machines largely in military service. For all that visionaries might dream of the new computer-based world, for all that some scientists and the entire media might talk of electronic brains, nobody was seriously interested in fully exploiting the device by making it smaller and cheaper. Ten years after its ideation and five years after the first machine had run, there were but 250 computers in the world. ‘For the first two decades of the existence of the high speed computer machines were so scarce and so expensive that man approached the computer the way an ancient Greek approached an oracle’ (Augarten 1984:253). As we have seen, all baby machines were strangled at birth or, like the somewhat larger Pilot Ace, never duplicated.

Transistors did not materially affect this. This was not because of ignorance. On the contrary, as early as 3 October 1948, within months of Bell’s announcement, Jack Good wrote in a letter to Turing: ‘Have you heard of the TRANSISTOR (or Transistor)? It is a small crystal alleged to perform nearly all the functions of a vacuum tube. It might easily be the biggest thing since the war. Is England going to get a look-in?’ (Hodges 1983:391). Nobody got a look-in, or rather looked in. For instance, a completely transistorised miniature device was built in Bell Labs before 1952 which could multiply two sixteen-digit binary numbers in 272 seconds. An obscurely titled 1952 article, ‘Regenerative Amplifier for Digital Computer Applications’, about this device concluded: ‘Transistor performance equal to that of vacuum tubes can be obtained in computer applications without sacrificing any of the obvious transistor advantages’ (Felker 1952:1596); but the machine was not only never developed, it was later totally written out of Bell’s computing history (Andrews 1963:314). In 1953, the Manchester group designed a small transistorised prototype computer and Metropolitan Vickers put it into

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Media Technology and Society: A History: From the Telegraph to the Internet
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Figures xi
  • Acknowledgements xiii
  • Introduction: A Storm from Paradise 1
  • Part I - Propagating Sound at Considerable Distances 17
  • 1 - The Telegraph 19
  • 2 - Before the Speaking Telephone 30
  • 3 - The Capture of Sound 51
  • Part II - The Vital Spark and Fugitive Pictures 65
  • 4 - Wireless and Radio 67
  • 5 - Mechanically Scanned Television 88
  • 6 - Electronically Scanned Television 100
  • 7 - Television Spin-Offs and Redundancies 126
  • Part III 145
  • 8 - Mechanising Calculation 147
  • 9 - The First Computers 166
  • 10 - Suppressing the Main Frames 189
  • 11 - The Integrated Circuit 206
  • 12 - The Coming of the Microcomputer 227
  • Part IV - The Intricate Web of Trails, This Grand System 241
  • 13 - The Beginnings of Networks 243
  • 14 - Networks and Recording Technologies 261
  • 15 - Communications Satellites 276
  • 16 - The Satellite Era 295
  • 17 - Cable Television 305
  • 18 - The Internet 321
  • Conclusion: the Pile of Debris 337
  • Notes 343
  • References 351
  • Index 361
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