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Last Updated: Monday, 9 February, 2004, 10:04 GMT
Unstoppable rise of the home computer
Computers pervade every aspect of our culture. But only 50 years ago, they were considered futuristic devices that belonged to the scientific world, as BBC Four's Hard Drive Heaven documentary explains.

Old computer
You had to be a computer scientist to operate early computers
It was the computer enthusiasts who helped the industry balloon into a multi-million pound business at the core of our world.

In 1949 the Manchester Baby was declared the world's first modern computer and its birth caused huge excitement in the scientific world.

But it was impossible to imagine that a room full of valves and wires would one day evolve into the home computer.

With technological advances these electronic brains became more powerful and more sophisticated, although you still had to be a computer scientist to operate one.

What changed was the arrival of the microchip in the 1960s. It was a revolution, meaning computers could be smaller and have much shorter processing times.

The advances in technology were taking place at a breath-taking pace. Every new step of technology was marvelled at. It seemed there were endless possibilities for the computer.

With this came a note of caution. The paranoid fears of those worried about the spread of computer technology were often realised in the science fiction dramas of the day.

But the imagined dangers of dabbling with computers did not dampen enthusiasm for this new phenomenon. In the late sixties and early seventies groups of hobbyists were busily experimenting with early computers.

Gaming pleasures

For these enthusiasts it was the arrival of a computer kit called the Altair 8800 which brought their dream of a home computer that bit closer.

Although it was called a home computer, not many homes had an Altair. A far more popular experience of computer technology was to be found in the gaming arcades of the early 70s.

ZX Spectrum
The ZX Spectrum had a complicated keyboard
Nolan Bushnell, an American hobbyist had exploited the technology of the microchip in a new way. He put his self-programmed computer games into bars proving they had universal appeal.

His company Atari was then one of the first to introduce a games console into the home. Whilst games consoles had entered the home market, none of the big companies recognised that there was a demand for a home computer.

It was left to small electronics firms and the hobbyists themselves to create a commercial market. In Britain that would be entrepreneur, Clive Sinclair.

The ZX80, and its immediate successor the ZX81, were astonishingly successful but for Sinclair the best was yet to come.

In 1982 the BBC began a campaign to educate the nation about computers. The Thatcher government was keen to try and make the British population the most computer-literate in the world.

In what was quite a remarkable piece of social intervention, the BBC commissioned a computer, made by Acorn, with the idea of allocating one to every school in the country. It was known as the BBC Micro.

Home computing

The 1980s were a boom time for the home computer, with small companies inventing new models all the time.

Apple laptop
Apple introduced a new way of interacting with computers
This revolution came to the attention of the computer giant, IBM, who, up until then, had specialised in mainframe computers. They decided to launch their own smaller machine, called the personal computer or PC, in 1981.

The IBM personal computer soon became the standard for computers in the office to such an extent that the name PC became a generic term.

Despite the success of the new PC, there were problems. The personal computer, although affordable, could be infuriating to use. They still relied on the operator having to type in specific written commands.

But there was a new revolution about to happen.

In 1984 a company called Apple launched its Macintosh computer. Instead of typing in text it used pictures - computer icons - inspired by the work at the Xerox Parc labs.

The Macintosh popularised the mouse. This user-friendly approach turned computing into child's play and quickly became an industry standard.

The PC was seen essentially as an office machine. In the home, the console, a dedicated games machine, had now become the more popular form of computer.

By the late eighties there were two competing consoles which would dominate the market, Sega and Nintendo.

Household tool

In the world of the PC things had become ever more sophisticated. One of the most famous of the computer nerds, Bill Gates and his now multi-billion dollar company Microsoft, were instrumental in turning the PC into a machine which could perform a multitude of tasks.

Girls using PC
Computers are now in the office, classroom and home
It was even beginning to challenge the consoles grip on the gaming market. That was until Sony introduced its PlayStation.

As well as being fashionably cool, the PlayStation and other next generation consoles seemed as though they were set to become the main form of computers in the home.

But with the advent of the internet, suddenly and surprisingly the dream of a multi-functional home computer was given a new lease of life.

The computer has come an unimaginable way since its early days. It is now easily accessible to all, with twice as many households in the UK owning a PC than own a dishwasher.

The PC, once used as a purely administrative device, can now be used to play music, films and DVDs, as a digital photo album, as an instant communication tool and for playing games.

But is the pace of technological advance now such that the home computer will soon become the victim of its own success?

Hard Drive Heaven was broadcast on BBC Four on Monday 9 February at 2200 GMT and repeated on Tuesday at 0130 GMT

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