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When I arrived as a graduate trainee reporter in The Sunday Times newsroom in 1991, there were no personal computers — just dumb green-screens run off a mainframe. And there was only one office printer, shared between about 200 journalists.
I remember Charles Hymas, then education correspondent, having to type in and then print out every school’s A-level results in order to try to compile a league table of the best and worst performing schools — well before the Department for Education cottoned on to the idea. His dot-matrix scroll stretched out on the floor to about 10 metres.
So how did I, a history graduate, end up as technology correspondent? Answer: I had a laptop — the first to be seen in The Sunday Times. It was a Toshiba with Microsoft Works, pre-Windows software that contained the magic technology of a spreadsheet. I popped Hymas’s schools into a series of rows and columns and bingo! It ranked them alphabetically, then according to the number of points they scored, then according to region and county. In a few minutes, I had accomplished what had taken Hymas five days.
It was not long until my digital acrobatics came to the attention of the editor. I was baptised technology correspondent and christened “Brains”. Something big was happening, changing the way people worked and the revolution had struck the world of Sunday journalism. The natural home for reporting on that revolution was, of course, the Business News section.
For the next four years I had the privilege to write about how technology was transforming business. The editor, Andrew Neil, revived the Innovations pages— a Harry Evans invention — which allowed me to travel all over the world, interviewing many of the famous names of the digital revolution — from Bill Gates and Larry Ellison to Michael Dell.
That the revolution I was witnessing was computer-based was beyond doubt. But just how all consuming that revolution was to become was not at all obvious at the start. The English language has a uniquely broad list of abusive terms for people interested in technology: geek, nerd, boffin, propeller-head, numbskull, code monkey . . . The list goes on. Surely this obsession with the @ symbol or codes such as were purely the niche perversions of autistic-minded males who really needed to get . . . a life!
For a while that is how it seemed. And then came the worldwide web. Tim Berners-Lee’s extraordinary invention transformed ASCII text into pages of links, images and text that could be designed to appeal to anyone. The internet as a publishing medium was born. And I was on the move — to spearhead publishing The Sunday Times online.
My experience tells me that any survey of how technology has changed the world over the past 50 years has to be dominated by the rise of the digital age. Unlike my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, the world we navigate today is completely digitised — from TV, video games and watches to cars, planes and trains. Money is digital, social lives are mediated through mobile devices.
Communications, defence, medicine — all have been utterly transformed. Slide rules, celluloid film, vinyl, maps are gone, tossed out on a torrent of digital innovations. We can save 1,000 images on a card the size of thumbnail and drive anywhere without knowing how to get there just by following a game of dot to dot. The river storms on as books are replaced by ereaders, CDs by iTunes, shopping by 3D printers — perhaps?
So I make no apologies for focusing my choice of 10 technology objects that have changed the world on the digital revolution. From pacemakers to Pixar and digital fingerprints and electron-tunnelling nanotech, it is all part of the same extraordinary story charting the rise and triumph of bits and bytes in our brand new binary world.
1 Fibre optics 1966
Albert Einstein gets his elbow into our list because, even though his best ideas belong to a previous era, one of them established the theoretical possibility of the stimulated emission of electromagnetic radiation. The first operational laser was demonstrated by the American physicist Theodore Maiman on May 16, 1960. Today its biggest impact must surely be in the world of fibre optics. The first working transmission system was tested in Germany in 1966, pioneering the backbone on which the modern world of cheap, long distance telephone and computer communications depends.
2 Colour television 1967
2. Colour television (BBC) John Logie Baird’s pioneering demonstration of television in 1926 to the Royal Institution in London only began to change the world once people could see its images in glorious Technicolor. NBC made America’s first coast-to-coast colour TV broadcast on January 1954 but it was not until July 1, 1967 when David Vine presented the Wimbledon tennis championships on BBC2 that the UK began broadcasting in colour.
Reference: Welsh Worldwide Blog
3 The mass-market microchip 1968
The idea of replacing large, fragile vacuum tubes with a series of tiny integrated circuits on a microchip belongs to a Ministry of Defence engineer, Geoffrey Dummer. But two US electrical engineers, Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce, were the first to build a microchip successfully. Noyce went on to co-found Intel in 1968 and it was he who gave Silicon Valley its name. From that moment on, the semi-conductor revolution in business and consumer electronics was born.
4 The digital watch 1970
Do you remember your first digital watch? I got mine at the age of 10. It was a gold-coloured Timex with a thin leather strap featuring a button that you pressed to switch on the red LED display. How I wish I still had it! The Hamilton Watch Company (it later became part of Swatch) produced the first prototype digital LED watch (a Pulsar) in 1970. Since then digital watches have featured upgrades including TVs, thermometers and compasses. Digital timekeeping is now incorporated into everything from mobile phones to microwaves.
5 The electronic calculator 1972
Times tables, slide rules, log books and even the incredible Curta, a pocket mechanical maths machine developed by Curt Hertzstark in a concentration camp, all of them got thrown out by the rise of computerised calculation. Japanese electronics companies took the lead when in 1957 Casio launched the Model 14-A calculator (it was built into a desk). Pocket calculators, introduced by Sharp, Casio and Texas Instruments in the early 1970s, began the mass adoption of digital devices that replaced the need for mental arithmetic. By 1972 the Sinclair Executive was selling for £79. Today credit-card size electronic calculators cost less than £1.
6 The mobile phone 1973
Martin Cooper’s handheld mobile phone prototype looks comical – the size of an L-shaped brick, 23cm long, 13cm deep and just over 4cm wide – but the test call he made on April 3, 1973, the first from a handheld mobile, marks a watershed in modern civilisation. Cooper’s phone took 10 hours to charge and lasted only 30 minutes before the battery went flat.
7 The personal computer and mouse 1968 to 1984
Who should we credit with the personal computer revolution? IBM, Bill Gates with his MS-DOS operating system? Steve Jobs with the Apple Mac? Just as significant, perhaps, was the less well-known Douglas Engelbart with his computer mouse, which featured in the “mother of all demonstrations” on December 9, 1968, in San Francisco, along with video conferencing and word processing. Personal computer historians suggest Engelbart’s demo of a fully functioning personal computer system provided the sparks of inspiration for the graphical user interface designs of both Microsoft Windows and Apple Mac.
8 The WorldWide Web 1989
It was highly appropriate for Sir Tim Berners-Lee – the CERN scientist and inventor of the worldwide web – to have been invited to take part in the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. Ranking Berners-Lee alongside the engineering genius Isambard Kingdom Brunel was not an exaggeration. His invention opened the internet to anyone capable of operating an electronic device and his Olympic opening ceremony tweet, “This is for everyone”, neatly captures the magnitude of his contribution to shaping the world we live in.
9 Touchscreen devices, from iPod to iPad 2001-2010
What really propelled computers into everyone’s hands was the advent of touchscreen technology – liberating people from clunky keyboards. After various false starts (I have a mint condition Apple Newton at home, given to me by Apple when I was working at The Sunday Times), Steve Jobs’s creative hothouse finally got to the core of the consumer market with its iPod music player. After disrupting the tradition of buying music via high street shops with its iTunes service, Apple launched the iPad in 2010. In 2013, Apple rose above the iconic Coca-Cola to become the world’s most valuable brand.
10 3D printing 2012
The idea of printing products on demand, at home, using computer files downloaded from the internet is set to change the world. When in August 2012 the American-based firearms maker Defense Distributed released downloadable files to make a handgun on a 3D printer, the world and the media suddenly woke up to the extraordinary implications of the technology. Already businesses are using 3D printing for rapid prototyping, fashion designers are experimenting with it for printing clothes and online opticians are using it for making customised glasses. If 3D printing takes manufacturing into homes then the severest disruption to business models and consumer lifestyles by the digital revolution may yet be to come.
Christopher Lloyd was Innovations and technology editor from 1993 to 1996
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