ARPANET, Part 1: The Inception

By the mid-1960s, the first time-sharing systems had already recapitulated the early history of the first telephone exchanges. Entrepreneurs built those exchanges as a means to allow subscribers to summon services such as a taxi, a doctor, or the fire brigade. But those subscribers soon found their local exchange just as useful for communicating and… Continue reading ARPANET, Part 1: The Inception

The Unraveling, Part 2

After authorizing private microwave networks in the Above 890 decision, the FCC might have hoped that they could leave those networks penned in their quiet little corner of the market and forget about them. But this quickly proved impossible. New challengers continued to press against the existent regulatory framework. They proposed a variety of new ways to… Continue reading The Unraveling, Part 2

Discovering Interactivity

The very first electronic computers were idiosyncratic, one-off research installations.1 But as they entered the marketplace, organizations very quickly assimilated them into a pre-existing culture of data-processing - one in which all data and processes were represented as stacks of punched cards. Herman Hollerith developed the first tabulator capable of reading and counting data based… Continue reading Discovering Interactivity

One System, Universal Service?

The Internet was born in a distinctly American telecommunications environment -- the United States treated telegraph and telephone providers very differently than the rest of the world -- and there is good reason to believe that this environment played a formative role in its development, shaping the character of the Internet to come. Let us,… Continue reading One System, Universal Service?

The Backbone: Introduction

In the early 1970s, Larry Roberts approached AT&T, the vast American telecommunications monopoly, with an intriguing offer. At the time, Roberts was director of  the computing division of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), a relatively young organization within the Department of Defense that was dedicated to long-term, blue-sky research. Over the previous five years, Roberts… Continue reading The Backbone: Introduction

The Transistor, Part 3: Endless Reinvention

For over a hundred years the analog dog wagged the digital tail. The effort to extend the reach of our senses - sight, hearing, even (after a manner of speaking) touch, drove engineers and scientists to search for better components for telegraph, telephone, radio and radar equipment. It was a happy accident that this also opened… Continue reading The Transistor, Part 3: Endless Reinvention

The Transistor, Part 2: Out Of The Crucible

The crucible of war prepared the ground for the transistor. The state of technical knowledge about semiconductor devices advanced enormously from 1939 to 1945. There was one simple reason: radar. The single most important technology of the war, its applications included detecting incoming air raids, locating submarines, guiding nightfighters to their targets, and aiming anti-aircraft… Continue reading The Transistor, Part 2: Out Of The Crucible

The Transistor, Part 1: Groping in the Dark

The road to a solid-state switch was a long and complex one. It began with the discovery that certain materials behaved oddly with respect to electricity - differently than any existing theory said they ought to. What followed is a story that reveals the "scienceification" and "instutionalization" of technology in the twentieth century. Dilettantes, amateurs… Continue reading The Transistor, Part 1: Groping in the Dark

The Electronic Computers, Part 4: The Electronic Revolution

We have now recounted, in succession, each of the first three attempts to build a digital, electronic computer: The Atanasoff-Berry Computer (ABC) conceived by John Atanasoff, the British Colossus projected headed by Tommy Flowers, and the ENIAC built at the University of Pennsylvania's Moore School. All three projects were effectively independent creations. Though John Mauchly, the motive force… Continue reading The Electronic Computers, Part 4: The Electronic Revolution

The Electronic Computers, Part 3: ENIAC

The second electronic computing project to emerge from the war, like Colossus, required many minds (and hands) to bring it to fruition. But, also like Colossus, it would have never come about but for one man's fascination with electronics. In this case, the man's name was John Mauchly. Mauchly's story intertwines in curious (and, to… Continue reading The Electronic Computers, Part 3: ENIAC

The Electronic Computers, Part 2: Colossus

In 1938 the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service quietly bought up a sixty acre estate fifty miles from London. Located at the junction of railways running up from London to parts north and from Oxford in the west to Cambridge in the east, it was an ideal site for an organization that needed… Continue reading The Electronic Computers, Part 2: Colossus

The Electronic Computers, Part 1: Prologue

As we saw in the last installment, the search by radio and telephone engineers for more powerful amplifiers opened a new technological vista that quickly acquired the name electronics. An electronic amplifier could easily be converted into a digital switch, but one with vastly greater speed than its electro-mechanical cousin, the telephone relay. Due to its… Continue reading The Electronic Computers, Part 1: Prologue

The Electronic Age

We saw last time how the first generation of digital computers were built around the first generation of automatic electrical switch, the electromagnetic relay. But by the time those computers were built, another digital switch was already waiting in the wings. Whereas the relay was an electromechanical device (because it used electricity to control a mechanical… Continue reading The Electronic Age

Lost Generation: The Relay Computers

Our previous installment described the rise of automatic telephone switches, and of the complex relay circuits to control them. Now we shall see how scientists and engineers  developed such relay circuits into the first, lost, generation of digital computers. The Relay at Zenith Recall to mind the relay, based on the simple idea that an electromagnet could operate a… Continue reading Lost Generation: The Relay Computers

Only Connect

The first telephones [Previous Part] were point-to-point devices, connecting a single pair of stations. As early as 1877, however, Alexander Graham Bell envisioned a grand, interconnected system. Bell wrote in a prospectus for potential inventors that, just as municipal gas and water systems connected homes and offices throughout major cities to central distribution centers,1 is conceivable that cables… Continue reading Only Connect

The Speaking Telegraph

[Previous Part] The telephone was an accident. Whereas the telegraph networks of the 1840s emerged out of a century-long search for the means to communicate by electricity, men only stumbled over the telephone while searching for a better telegraph. For this reason, it is easier to pin down a plausible, though not incontrovertible, date for the invention of the… Continue reading The Speaking Telegraph