Computers; History and Pictures


Is the computer taking over our lives? And are computers and the internet the most significant development, in terms of changing human behaviour, that has ever been seen? Thirty years ago there were almost no jobs that required you to stare at a screen all day. Now most people not only do it at work, they head for their personal screen as soon as they have a little space.

If you are older, you may remember a day when people basically understood how their car worked, and some could even perform servicing tasks themselves. Look under the bonnet of a modern car, and you would not know where to start, any more than you would with the computer entrails in my photos below. Are we living in the era of the greatest pace of change ever? It is amazing to think that the first flight by the Wright brothers was in 1903 and lasted barely a minute, and by 1969 the Americans walked on the Moon! Now the Hubble telescope out in Space has discovered that the universe has ten times as many galaxies in it as we thought only a short time ago.

None of this would have been possible without the invention of the computer, and the subsequent spread of computer technology into every aspect of our lives. The first attempt to develop a computer was in the early 19th century, by English inventor Charles Babbage, but he was unable to complete the project and lost government funding (sounds familiar today?). Early digital computers of the 1930s performed calculations by a series of electrical switches driving relays, but they were enormous and slow.

The first programmable, fully automatic digital computer, which led directly to the development of modern computers, was the Z3, invented by the German engineer Konrad Zuse in 1941. Not much more than 70 years later, with the help of computers, planes can land themselves and driverless cars are already on our roads.
The development of the personal computer, largely by companies like Microsoft and Apple in ‘Silicone Valley’, California, did the most to bring the power of the personal computer to the masses. For now, every child has a computer in their pocket or bag, in the shape of a mobile phone or tablet. All college and university assignments have to be submitted in word-processed form. Many schools ‘give’ students their own laptop when they join the school, and all their work is done on it. Companies like IBM and Cisco Systems have revolutionised the way we work, enabling working at home, for example.

Adults invariable get their phone out to check their messages or look at pages on the internet as soon as they have a spare moment, and some studies have shown that this can be as many as 150 times a day. Just over a third of Britons check their device more than 25 times in 24 hours. Young people and children who have smart phones are estimated to look at their phone 50 times a day or more.

Some people, only half humorously, say young people do not talk to the people they are with, but only to internet friends, unless, of course, they phone the person they are with and talk though the ether. Is it ‘social media’, or ‘anti-social media’? So maybe the social change associated with computer technology is the biggest single development in our era? Facebook, Snapchat, Skype, cyber bullying, computer games, dating sites, shopping - these, rather than the amazing instant access to endless information via search engines (who understands how they work?) and the web, may turn out to be more significant changes, and how we relate to each other and form and develop our relationships may be very different from the way our grandparents or even our parents did things.

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