Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2014
  • Online publication date: December 2014

8 - Computing gets personal


I think it’s fair to say that personal computers have become the most empowering tool we’ve ever created. They’re tools of communication, they’re tools of creativity, and they can be shaped by their user.

Bill Gates

The beginnings of interactive computing

In the early days of computing, computers were expensive and scarce. They were built for solving serious computational problems – and certainly not for frivolous activities like playing games! The microprocessor and Moore’s law have changed this perspective – computing hardware is now incredibly cheap and it is the software production by humans and management of computers that is expensive. Some of the ideas of interactive and personal computing can be traced back to an MIT professor called J. C. R. Licklider. Lick – as he was universally known – was a psychologist and one of the first researchers to take an interest in the problem of human-computer interactions. During the Cold War in the 1950s, he had worked at MIT’s Lincoln Labs on the Semi-Automated Ground Environment (SAGE) system designed to give early warning of an airborne attack on the United States. This system used computers to continuously keep track of aircraft using radar data. It was this experience of interactive computing that convinced Lick of the need to use computers to analyze data as the data arrived – for “real time” computing.

Another type of interactive computing was being developed at around the same time. Engineers at MIT’s Lincoln Labs had developed the TX-0 in 1956 – one of the first transistorized computers. Wesley Clark and Ken Olsen had specifically designed and built the TX-0 to be interactive and exciting, the exact opposite of sedate batch processing on a big mainframe computer. Olsen recalled:

Then we had a light pen, which was what we used in the air-defense system and which was the equivalent of the mouse or joystick we use today. With that you could draw, play games, be creative it was very close to being the modern personal computer.