45 years ago: Computers are a fad

April 1, 1968, on this blog: Computers are a fad

Just attended this presentation, in which Douglas Englebart
of the Stanford Research Institute  argues that mechanized
thinking machines will "augment the human intellect."

"If in your office," Engelbart said, "you as an intellectual
worker were supplied with a computer display, backed up by a
computer that was alive for you all day and was instantly
responsive to every action you have, how much value could
you derive from that?  Well this basically characterizes what
we've been pursuing for many years in what we call the
Augmented Human Intellect Research Center ..."

So Engelbart envisions a computer on the desk of every
American worker.  I'm optimistic about the future -- this
is 1968, our Space Age future is already here -- but this
seems like a preposterous fantasy.  It's like imagining that
someday ordinary people will own telephones. ...
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  • flat

    I remember when you put this on your blog for the first time back in 1968, man time sure flies.

  • Foreigner

    Ah, 1968, when peace and love and groovy tunes were all around … actually, I think my hometown went straight from 1959 to 1979, do not pass go, do not collect any sexual liberation. Either that or I was there in the Summer of Love, because I sure don’t remember anything like that.

  • bmk

    I remember a 1984 documentary about an Italian-American family (the LaRussos, I think) that moved from New Jersey to California because the mom felt that she would never be able to make any money in computers. Then her son was beat up, and had to learn karate to defend himself.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Wonder what that dude would say about smartphones.

  • The_L1985

    “I can see a world market for maybe 5 computers.”
    –President of IBM, 1940

  • http://web.archive.org/web/19980610100009/www.redherring.com/mag/issue55/economics.html Paul Krugman 1998 “The growth of the Internet will slow drastically, as the flaw in “Metcalfe’s law”–which states that the number of potential connections in a network is proportional to the square of the number of participants–becomes apparent: most people have nothing to say to each other! By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s.”

  • christopher_y

    Krugman’s mistake was in supposing that the fact that most people have nothing to say to each other would lead them to shut up. It should have been apparent to him even then, from a cursory examination of Usenet, that a lack of subject matter has never held anybody back even for a moment.

  • LoneWolf343

    Case in point, the person who tried to jack the conversation of a joke post.

    “A fanatic is someone who won’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.”

  • AnonaMiss

    Is there a subtext here that I’m missing? Because I thought it was relevant.

  • DonBoy2

    I figured the “tell” was that use of “basically”, a word that can be interjected almost anywhere into a nerd explanation…only to discover that the quoted material is real. (I’m assuming the quote in the post is an actual quote.)

  • TheDarkArtist

    Eh, you can’t fault him for that. We’re talking about a time when the microprocessor hadn’t yet been invented. Even when it was, IBM produced so few of their early mainframes (I believe they sold less than 100 worldwide) that none exist in working order, and iirc there’s only one extant example that hasn’t been salvaged for precious metal.

    Back in those days, the only people interested in computers were governments and research institutions, and they cost so much that those were the only institutions who could afford one, in any case.

    You also have to remember that the PC concept wasn’t the original idea for computers, the Mainframe was. The PC was essentially created out of the frustration of CS/mathematics/science students who needed more time on a computer than they could reserve on their institutions’ mainframes.

    So, I can’t judge people too harshly for that. Hell, remember that when the iPod came out, a ton of critics were calling it a flop before it even went to stores. “Who needs to carry all of their music around with them?”

  • And now Karate Inc. is one of the largest businesses on Earth.

  • Who needs critics when the president of the company is dismissing its own products?

  • Abigail Nussbaum

    Wait, people didn’t own telephones in 1968?

  • Steve Morrison

    In those days Bell leased all of the phones they installed to the customer; you didn’t actually own your telephone(s).

  • P J Evans

    It was also not that long after the phone company discovered plastic came in colors besides black.

  • Vermic

    It’s hard to believe we’ve come this far in just 45 years. Who’d have ever guessed that by 2013, these “mechanized thinking machines” would become commonplace, inexpensive, smaller than a human cell but more powerful than a human brain, then finally network together into a vast and malevolent Mech-Mind that would eradicate human civilization and enslave our species with osmium/vanadium “agony spikes” implanted into our prefrontal cortex? Science truly is amazing.

    Remember the old days, when you had to warm up your chicken in the oven instead of using a microwave? Remember chickens?

    Oops, gotta go! My 90000-millisecond slurry break is up and I hear that familiar whirr of servomotors coming up the corridor. Can’t be seen goofing off! GLORY TO THE CALCULOIDS! GLORY TO THE CAL

  • P J Evans

    IBM was building something like the PC by 1976. (The first PCs were, well, not very useful. Go look up Imsai and Altair computers sometime.)

  • VMink

    Novell? Oh, wait…. =D

    (Saying this as someone who still has a CNE-5 and proud of it.)

  • Without more context, that might not have been criticism, that might have been boasting. 1940s computers weren’t exactly small, portable devices one could own in their own home and I doubt they were yet available on the commercial market…




  • TheBrett

    It’s technically a double prediction failure, since he was also talking about how the Space Age was upon us.

    In the case of the “telephone” thing, I can understand where he was coming from. The barrier there wasn’t technology, but Ma Bell’s monopoly.

  • I, for one, welcome our robot overlords.

  • Lectorel

    Yeah, it can be hard to predict whether certain new tech products will take off. I remember the jokes going around on all the female-centric tech websites I hung out on after the iPad came out – “Apple is expanding into the feminine hygiene products market? This’ll be good.” A lot of people expected it to flop with women just for the name. It’s still a little strange to me it’s taken off so much.

  • Cathy W

    You mean “protectors”.

  • Lori

    Hell, remember that when the iPod came out, a ton of critics were
    calling it a flop before it even went to stores. “Who needs to carry all
    of their music around with them?”

    Perspective is everything. My assumption about those critics was that they weren’t “music people”. If you rarely listen to music, especially outside your house, and/or you’re content with whatever happens to come on the radio then I guess the iPod wouldn’t seem like a big deal. I looked at it very differently. I’m not a an early adopter by any means and I’m not much of a gadget person, but my response to first hearing about the iPod was “Want.” The idea of being able to listen to whichever songs I wanted without having to carry around CDs seemed obviously marvelous to me. Some friends bought me a first gen iPod as a congratulations gift when I got into grad school. I still have it and use it almost every day. Unless I hit the lotto and suddenly have the money to replace it with something better it’s going to stay under the heading of “You’ll get it when you pry it out of my cold, dead hands.”

  • JustoneK

    Friend Computer is okay with this.

  • Happy Easter, from Chiron Beta Prime.

  • I hadn’t anticipated the iPod being as successful as it went on to be – or having it morph into the whole iOS ecosystem that’s in place today – but I recognized it as a good idea at the time.

    Of course, that was also true all of the mp3 players that already existed, so I wasn’t exactly impressed by the iPod.

    Then again, I was (and am) more of a technophile than the average consumer who likely had no idea that there were already devices that offered similar functionality – if somewhat less elegantly, I will grant you – and to whom the iPod evidently seemed like the most amazing new concept ever.

    But making predictions is a tricky business, especially when it comes to technology. Most people are about as good at it as Bill Kristoll is at predicting the outcomes of elections…

  • Not just “in those days”, if this article from May of 2012 is accurate: http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865555052/Bad-call-Seniors-paying-thousands-to-lease-home-phones.html?pg=all

  • christopher_y

    He certainly said that, but I doubt if it was in 1940, since the first working programmable computer wasn’t built until 1943, and that was a state secret until the 1970s. The US government admitted to the existence of their computer (ENIAC I) in 1946. The first commerial computers were built by Ferranti and Remington and went live in 1951. IBM didn’t get into the act for another year after that.

  • And if Friend Computer isn’t, well, do you have the security clearance to know that, Citizen?

  • I’m guessing something like “ARGLE BARGLE HEAD EXPLODEY!”

  • I used to know a guy who was certain that since he didn’t remember the 60s he must’ve been there – he told stories about hitchhiking to Woodstock, that sort of thing.

    This despite his having been born in 1963.

  • Lori

    I had played around with a couple pre-iPod MP3 players and found them to be a PITA in various ways. They never triggered my gimme reflex. Design matters. It is tough to predict which combination of tech and design is going to be a hit with a large number of people though.

  • Jessica_R

    “Further, we are baffled at why any one would like to look at a picture or video of such a tiresome creature as a cat.” -founder of YouTube, 1954

  • Yep, which is why so many people back the wrong horse when they make decisions based entirely on features and performance, and don’t take into account things like ease of use and overall looks.

    For my part, I don’t actually find the Apple aesthetic especially appealing, nor do I find their products to be as intuitive as many people claim. My first (and second, actually) mp3 player was from Archos, and while I didn’t find the iPod to be as “pretty” as so many other people did, even I had to admit that my chosen product was ugly in comparison to the iPod. It was also bulky.

    However, my decision to go with it was based on features and price. It was cheaper than an iPod, it had a much higher capacity (which is why it was so bulky), and using it was as intuitive as possible. You connected it to your computer, your computer recognized it as a hard drive, and you just dragged your mp3 files onto it.

  • I didn’t use a push-button phone on a regular basis until after I got married. In 1991.

    My parents always leased their phones during my pre-marriage years, and the phones they leased were rotary dial*. When I asked them why we never bought a phone, they said it was because the phone company wouldn’t fix the wiring inside your home unless the phone was leased. If you owned your phone, their repairs would stop at the walls of your house.

    *When they instituted 911, my initial reaction was one of combined horror and amusement as I imagined having to wait the time it took to dial “9” on a rotary phone in an emergency. By the time I could dial the first “1” there was a chance I would have died of smoke inhalation.

  • P J Evans

    The Space Shuttles were running on something like 1971 technology, although they may have gotten some upgrades before they were retired.
    Smart phones have more processing power than most mid-60s computers (not that that’s hard to do, any more).

  • fredgiblet

    Vastly superior. I tried using iTunes to get a PDF on my mom’s iPad a while back, it was horrendous and my mom was talking about how she just e-mails things to herself.

  • That being said, if you’re not making a general-purpose computer it is easy to specialize one within constraints, even of 1970s technology, to do whatever you’d like.

  • Cathy W

    Speaking of our robot overlords – I found a way to make Disqus behave on Work IE. If the comments don’t come up properly, I hit F12 to open the “Developer Tools”, and near the upper right of the screen there will be something that says “Document Mode: IE7 Standards.” If I change that to “IE8 Standards”, Disqus loads and more or less works as it was intended to. I’m sharing this in the hopes that it might help others.

  • I was 22 in 1968 and I fully expected wrist communicators, jet packs, and electronic news and research readers to be available to everyone in a matter of a few years. I’m still pissed about the jet packs, but I do love the interwebs.
    I suppose it is the difference between those of us who read science fiction and those of us who did not.

  • Kirala

    Didn’t you hear? YouTube’s ending. Last chance to vote on best cat video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H542nLTTbu0

  • VMink

    Of course not, Friend. I have no need to know anything above my security level. What kind of Commie Mutant Traitor question is that?

  • VMink

    Considering how much of a mess we make on the roads today using machines not vastly different from the Model T, I’m slowly starting to come around to the idea that no jet packs and no flying cars is probably a good thing.

  • Cathy W

    The smartphone gets me – with the right gizmo for processing credit cards or the deposit-a-check-by-photo app, it’s not all that much different from Shadowrun’s “pocket secretary”, which was the hot new tech around the year 2050.
    In the other direction – we were supposed to have had a moon colony more than 10 years ago. Where is my moon colony? I want my moon colony way more than I ever wanted a flying car.

  • Rakka

    When I was a kid the emergency number was 000. It was changed to GSM standard right around when dial phones were starting to get common-ish. Talk about getting things backwards.

  • Rakka

    Sorry, meant to include the actual number 112 in there.

  • Lori

    This. If we’re going to get jet packs & flying cars I hope it doesn’t happen until I’m long past the point of ever leaving the house. The idea of taking the people who routinely tried to kill me on the 405 in LA or the Beltway in DC and turning them loose in the sky is freaking terrifying.

  • SisterCoyote

    Rotary phones are the worst. Before I moved across the country, my sister and I were living together in a house that only had a rotary phone – it made the most irritating sound in the world, or in the top ten, and making calls on it took forever, and just, argh. Argh. (It also somehow, SOMEHOW, always wound up in the very farthest reach of the corner, behind the stacks of books that always piled up in front of it, and the cord would knock books over, and the whole thing would fall off… argh. I don’t miss having a landline out here.)