The history of computers is a long and tangled one, theoretically stretching back to the invention of the abacus 3,000 years before Christ, but we really started moving toward our current wired world in the 1940s with early electronic computers like EDVAC and ENIAC. Those giant, room filling machines were the product of a furious pace of technological development that took hold in the late 19th and early 20th century, one that continued to accelerate as the years flew by and quickly made those once impressive systems obsolete. The introduction of home computers in the late 1970s and early 1980s only added more fuel to the fire as gifted amateur programmers helped push development ever forward. In the twenty years before the millennium, computers advanced with head-spinning speed, culminating in the advent of the internet, and proceeded to change nearly every aspect of our lives (duh), but the rate of that evolution can sometimes make it hard to get any kind of perspective on how we got here and where we’re going. Thank god then for Computer Chronicles, the pioneering public television program that was born in Silicon Valley, more or less alongside the personal computer, and grew into an important resource for techies around the world, creating one of the most thorough and invaluable documents of a paradigm-shifting era in human history along the way.
There’s some debate as to exactly when Computer Chronicles was born. Creator Stewart Cheifet, then of non-commercial station KCSM-TV in the San Mateo area of California’s Silicon Valley, may have had a prototype version of the program airing locally as early as 1981, which may or may not have been hosted by mathematician and industry professional Jim Warren. Again, this is the subject of speculation, but the accepted beginning of CC proper came in 1983 with the airing of the episode “Mainframes to Minis to Micros”, which found Cheifet himself handling hosting duties (as he would the remainder of the series) alongside influential programmer and entrepreneur Gary Kildall. The first episode was a little unique, in that it took an insightful look at computing history while the remainder of the show’s nearly 20 year run was devoted almost exclusively to the cutting edge, examining recent advancements in hardware and software from a variety of angles, technical, artistic and commercial, week in and week out.
Although there were plenty of people interested in computers, particularly an enormous number of curious and energetic young people, there wasn’t much of an infrastructure for them to acquire or share information about that interest. There were some magazines, a few extremely primitive Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), usually at universities and research facilities, and local clubs formed by enthusiasts, but nothing catering to their niche in the mass media. But when Cheiften saw the enthusiasm of these devotees and decided to create a program around it, even he didn’t realize how big of an untapped market he had stumbled upon. Without much effort on his part, the show spread to PBS stations across the country and soon to television sets in countries across the globe. “The TV station started getting phone calls from other TV stations around the country, who were getting phone calls from gadget geeks and their community, saying ‘We hear there’s this damn show on the air and we want to watch it!” remembered Cheifet, “[We] turned it from a local show into a national show literally by just answering the phone, we never tried to sell it, it was on in like thirty five cities to begin with and it ended up in over two hundred cities in the United States and in over a hundred countries around the world.”
The demand for the show wasn’t simply a product of Computer Chronicles being the first and, for a time, only game in town, in fact, several competing shows popped up, but none could come anywhere close to matching the success of Cheifet’s creation. The show struck a chord with people because it shared its audience’s passion and curiosity about its subject and never attempted to talk down to them, providing clear-eyed, engaging reporting on both the how things worked and their possible impact on the future. Its popularity never really waned; instead, rather ironically, it was the digital revolution the show helped inspire that ultimately caused its demise in 2002. When the speculative Dotcom Bubble popped in the mid-90s, the entire industry took a hit, and as a result, leading companies who had thrown their weight behind the program as a way of getting their name directly in front of their most likely customers, were suddenly much more reluctant to provide any sponsorship funding. Moreover, the internet itself provided a more expedient way for gearheads to swap news and information in the form of chat rooms, forums and, later, blogs.
As a final gift to the show’s fans, and to the future, Cheiften successfully campaigned to make nearly all of the series available for free online, meaning almost 600 episodes are available to anyone with a decent internet connection whenever they care to watch them, which has created a whole new generation of fans. Even now the episodes are highly entertaining (check out the one on MIDI music gear, it’s got Mick Fleetwood), but of course, what makes them truly special is the historical perspective they give us. One can basically watch the PC boom and the rise of the Internet unfold, week by week, month by month, year by year. Volumes upon volumes have been, and will continue to be, written about the twisty, epic story of how we got from abacus to iPod, but existing as it does in a visual medium and covering the timeframe it covers, Computer Chronicles allows us to see the amazing level of inspiration that went into the things we use every day, and to vicariously experience the thrill of discovering a future that has now long since come to pass.