A short history of computing, by a boiled frog

21 February 2013

Today my home broadband got upgraded. A few hours ago, 7Mbps down and a tenth of that up was as good as it ever got. Now it’s close to 50Mbps down and, even more dramatically, about 15Mbps up.

Once there were no computers visibly in my life, still less devices which happened to compute. Now they are ubiquitous and their impact has been transformational. The whole change has been enormous, but the scale of it is rarely obvious. No one step was life changing, but tracing back through the journey gets us to a strange and distant place.

I remember…

I remember when I first felt that I had the whole internet with me, almost always and almost everywhere

and stopped reading a newspaper on the bus to work every morning, breaking one more connection with physical information

I remember when I first got a smartphone

and left for a long trip in which I was able to manage flights, hotels and maps with a device which slipped into my pocket – and could even make phone calls

I remember when I first got a tablet

no, not one of those, one of these

I remember when I first started on twitter

when I realised that everybody at a meeting I was at had been having – and were still having – an interesting conversation which I wasn’t part of and couldn’t see was happening

I remember when I made all my CDs vanish

but could listen to them all over the house, using what to this day are some of my favourite ever gadgets

I remember when I first got broadband

it was partly the speed (though that was a tiny fraction of even yesterday’s standard), but even more so the immediacy of the connection: you didn’t have to go online any more, you could be online, and that made all the difference (and not paying by the second helped too)

I remember when I first got internet access at work

on a standalone computer in a locked room at the the end of a corridor, with a book in which to write a complete list of sites visited

I remember when I first got ISDN

you could have two 64k channels for a blistering 128k – but at the cost of two phone calls, so every second had to count

I remember when I first took a digital photograph

on a camera made by a company called Kodak, which used to be in the photography business

I remember when I first got a computer at work

which required a business case for each PC individually, constrained by the fact that typists were to type any document over a hundred words

I remember when I first accessed the web

it seemed enormous, but Yahoo was still trying to keep a central index of websites up to date by hand

I remember when I first went online

in what would now be called a walled garden, but for a while the inside was almost bigger than the outside, and it was suddenly possible to get something out of a computer I hadn’t put in to it

I remember when I first saw a mobile phone

a stranger in a pub, whose phone took up an entire attaché case, and who spent ten minutes setting it up and turning it on, but didn’t seem to have anyone to talk to

I remember when I got my first computer at home

with two floppy disk drives (now down to only 5¼”)- adding the optional 10Mb hard disk would have made it unaffordably more expensive

I remember when I first used a word processor

amazing dedicated machines, superbly optimised for their single task, using 8″ discs to store a few dozen pages of text

I remember when I saw my first home computer

built by a friend from a kit, playing jerky space invaders from a cassette tape

I remember when I first used a computer terminal

a teletype from school over a fixed line to the local technical college, programming first BASIC then FORTRAN on paper tape, almost always in batch mode with 24 hour turnround, so typos really mattered

I remember when I first had a pocket calculator

which had the extra sophistication of a percentage key as well as the four basic operators, and was called a vatman as a result

I remember when I had a book of four figure log tables.

None of that was very long ago. Or so it seems to me.