The Greatest Stories Ever Written About the Early Days of the Computer Industry

Longform.org's guide to the greatest long articles ever written.
March 17 2012 6:49 AM

The Longform Guide to Early Computing

As the new iPad debuts, a look back at the greatest stories ever written about the first computers.

A Cray-2 supercomputer at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris, France.
A Cray-2 supercomputer at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris, France

David Monniaux

Every weekend, Longform shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s brand-new app.

As the early adopters among us massage their new iPads this weekend, they might want to hearken back to when a computer was a room, and the only thing you touched was a punch-card. Here are our favorite stories from the computer’s early days:

Stewart Brand • Rolling Stone • December 1972

A game called Spacewar is developed by early computer engineers in their spare time, improved in university comp-sci labs, and ultimately made available in coffeeshops for 10 cents per game:

“Reliably, at any nighttime moment (i.e. non-business hours) in North America hundreds of computer technicians are effectively out of their bodies, locked in life-or-death space combat computer-projected onto cathode ray tube display screens, for hours at a time, ruining their eyes, numbing their fingers in frenzied mashing of control buttons, joyously slaying their friend and wasting their employers’ valuable computer time. Something basic is going on.

“Rudimentary Spacewar consists of two humans, two sets of control buttons or joysticks, one TV-like display and one computer. Two spaceships are displayed in motion on the screen, controllable for thrust, yaw, pitch and the firing of torpedoes. Whenever a spaceship and torpedo meet, they disappear in an attractive explosion. That's the original version invented in 1962 at MIT by Steve Russell.”

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James Fallows • Atlantic • July 1982

Advice from 1982 on how and why one should buy a personal computer:

"I can hardly bring myself to mention the true disadvantage of computers, which is that I have become hopelessly addicted to them. To the outside world, I present myself as a man with a business need for a word-processing machine. Sure, I have a computer: I'd have a drill press if I were in the machine-tool business. This is the argument I make frequently to my wife. The truth, which she has no doubt guessed, is that I love to see them work.

Tom Wolfe • Esquire • December 1983

The Silcon Valley origin story:

“America is today in the midst of a great technological revolution. With the advent of the silicon chip, information processing, communications, and the national economy have been strikingly altered. The new technology is changing how we live, how we work, how we think. The revolution didn't just happen; it was engineered by a small number of people, principally Middle Americans, whose horizons were as unlimited as the Iowa sky. Collectively, they engineered tomorrow. Foremost among them is Robert Noyce.”

David Sheff • Playboy • February 1985

A conversation with a 29-year-old Jobs:

“ ‘It’s often the same with any new, revolutionary thing. People get stuck as they get older. Our minds are sort of electrochemical computers. Your thoughts construct patterns like scaffolding in your mind. You are really etching chemical patterns. In most cases, people get stuck in those patterns, just like grooves in a record, and they never get out of them. It’s a rare person who etches grooves that are other than a specific way of looking at things, a specific way of questioning things. It’s rare that you see an artist in his 30s or 40s able to really contribute something amazing. Of course, there are some people who are innately curious, forever little kids in their awe of life, but they’re rare.’ ”

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