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.’ ”

Gary Wolf • Wired • June 1985

Ted Nelson’s Xanadu project was supposed to be the universal, democratic hypertext library that would help human life evolve into an entirely new form. Didn’t turn out that way:

“The story of Ted Nelson's Xanadu is the story of the dawn of the information age. Like the mental patient in Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow who believes he is the Second World War - feeling a great burst of rosy health when The Blitz comes and a terrible pinching headache at the Battle of the Bulge - Nelson, with his unfocused energy, his tiny attention span, his omnivorous fascination with trivia, and his commitment to recording incidents whose meaning he will never analyze, is the human embodiment of the information explosion.

“Nelson records everything and remembers nothing. Xanadu was to have been his cure. To assist in the procedure, he called upon a team of professionals, some of whom also happened to be his closest friends and disciples.

“In the end, the patient survived the operation. But it nearly killed the doctors.”

Neal Stephenson • Wired • December 1996

A 42,000-word, three-continent spanning “hacker tourist” account of the laying of the (then) longest wire on earth, FLAG, fiber-optic link around the world:

“Information moves, or we move to it. Moving to it has rarely been popular and is growing unfashionable; nowadays we demand that the information come to us. This can be accomplished in three basic ways: moving physical media around, broadcasting radiation through space, and sending signals through wires. This article is about what will, for a short time anyway, be the biggest and best wire ever made.”

John Seabrook • The New Yorker • June 1994

An early take on the dark side of cyberspace:

“Like many newcomers to the ’net’–which is what people call the global web that connects more than thirty thousand on-line networks–I had assumed, without really articulating the thought, that while talking to other people through my computer I was going to be sheltered by the same customs and laws that shelter me when I’m talking on the telephone or listening to the radio or watching TV. Now, for the first time, I understood the novelty and power of the technology I was dealing with.”

Ian Parker • The New Yorker • May 2001

The definitive story of a ubiquitous software. PowerPoint’s origins, its evolution, and its mind-boggling impact on corporate culture:

“Today, after Microsoft’s decade of dizzying growth, there are great tracts of corporate America where to appear at a meeting without PowerPoint would be unwelcome and vaguely pretentious, like wearing no shoes. In darkened rooms at industrial plants and ad agencies, at sales pitches and conferences, this is how people are communicating: no paragraphs, no pronouns—the world condensed into a few upbeat slides, with seven or so words on a line, seven or so lines on a slide. And now it’s happening during sermons and university lectures and family arguments, too. A New Jersey PowerPoint user recently wrote in an online discussion, ‘Last week I caught myself planning out (in my head) the slides I would need to explain to my wife why we couldn’t afford a vacation this year.’ Somehow, a piece of software designed, fifteen years ago, to meet a simple business need has become a way of organizing thought at kindergarten show-and-tells. ‘Oh, Lord,’ one of the early developers said to me. ‘What have we done?’”

Have a favorite piece that we missed? Leave the link in the comments or tweet it to @longformorg. For more great writing, check out Longform’s complete archive.

Max Linsky is a founding editor of Longform.org.

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