I recently finished reading A People’s History of Computing in the United States by Joy Lisi Rankin. I loved it. With that title, I had high hopes for a Howard Zinn style examination of the overlooked stories, excavated white washed histories, and tales of the underdogs, unknown people and events. This book delivered on this promise. This is not an affiliate link, I get nothing if you click through and purchase it. I found it fascinating. To be honest, I don’t know if the writing is compelling, because I was already deeply interested in the topic, so I can’t comment on that. If you are interested in the history of technology, told through lesser known events, people and places, this book is for you.
We are probably most familiar with the stories of tech titans from Silicon Valley, Seattle and even IBM in Dallas. This book focuses on lesser known stories. I had little to no knowledge of these stories. Rather than going into an exhaustive summary, I’ll list some of the interesting stories, surprising details, things I learned or details I had wrong that this book corrected.
Did you know that there were computer networks centered in New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Illinois, but they connected far-flung users? In the 60’s and 70’s there were networked computers, terminal machines connected to mainframes, sometimes across great distances, on a long distance call line. Doesn’t that sound familiar?
What did people use these networks for? Playing video games, The Oregon Trail comes from this period. They shared early versions of what we consider memes, they sent messages, built community, programmed music, and the early adopters of the digital realm laid the foundation for today’s debates about whether the internet should be a public utility and concepts of net neutrality. I for one had never heard this debate goes back decades.
These early computing efforts placed a much greater emphasis on the user, user friendly design, on community, on making sure a growing number of people had access to this nascent technology. Before IBM and Silicon Valley turned it into such a corporate affair, these early networks made computing work for people.
Were there issues? Of course. Tales from Dartmouth College in the 1960’s show many men on sports teams made video games and played with their friends, creating a very male dominated computing culture there. Sometimes to show off for a date, men brought their female dates to the computer lab to show off their skills. There was little opportunity for underrepresented groups and even less access. Although some efforts were made to make computing a public utility, like water or electricity, and bring it to many more people, these efforts were not enough, and barely moved the needle on this aspect.
It was fascinating to hear the early history of hardware and compare it to where we are today. Back then, there was a mainframe computer, and hundreds of “terminal” computers were connected to it, close by, or at a distance, over long distance telephone cables, so long distance charges were incurred. Essentially, early terminals had no software installed and were basically conduits for connecting to this mainframe powered network, kind of like a Chromebook today. Software now lives in the cloud, and back then it lived on the mainframe, although “the cloud” is just a collection of interconnected servers. I never thought about why the app Terminal is called terminal and now I get it, you can access the inner workings of your computer and make customizations much more easily, using Terminal, and it functions like terminal computers used to function. I’ve been obsessed with learning Terminal on Ubuntu and using it to install, upgrade and customize my Linux machine, even though I use Ubuntu which has a graphical user interface.
I could go on and on, hopefully I’ve peaked your interest enough to read it. I plan to read it again I enjoyed it so much. You can leave a comment here, but if you want to chat more about it, let’s do it on Twitter, I’m @owenpeery, at me please.Please follow and like us: