The 1970s Computer Tipping Point

We all love to look back at the wacky predictions made during the 1950s and early 1960s about the space age future and laugh. Sadly we are not all zooming around with our Jetsons-style space packs….YET! And when it comes to Computer History and electronic tech then there is often a tendency to do the same thing, to compare the ideas of the early days with the reality of today. But of course there was a tipping point in the past, a point at which the things we now enjoy today suddenly came into focus and seemed actually achievable.

I have just read a book which (to my mind) helps reinforce our acceptance that the magical tipping-point was around the mid 1970s. It is entitled ‘Evolution in Miniature- The History and Impact of Semiconductor Electronics’ by Ernest Braun and Stuart MacDonald. Though published in 1978 it appears to have been penned in 1975. In the final chapter the authors allows themselves the freedom to speculate a little about where transistors (and more importantly Computers and our consumer electronics) would lead us in the future. Remember this is 1975, the micro-processor had only just been invented in 1971 and the Altair 8800 had only been released that year. I have bullet pointed just some of their key ideas from this chapter. It is interesting to look at which remain flights of fancy and which we are actually living with today………

  • a telephone system that can provide a personal link between every home and perhaps eventually the basic structure for linking any two or more individuals. Not restricted to voice communication only but also data exchange.
  • Shopping could be done online at home with viewing and choosing done via a data link through the television.
  • Remote meter readings and domestic electrical equipment could be diagnosed from afar.
  • Schoolwork might be carried on more efficiently from home
  • Sending of items by post might often be avoided as instead messages could be sent via data transfer
  • Advertising would alter its approach
  • Votes could be cast from home
  • Microprocessors could monitor and control all the mechanical parts of a car
  • Some see the computer might be a cause for unemployment, and a threat to privacy.
  • By the year 2000 computers would be as prevalent in the home as phones.
  • The money and cheque system would disappear
  • By the millennium computers would be able to learn from their own experience.
  • Cars will have auto-pilot and urban traffic would be computer controlled.
  • Medical diagnosis will be very influenced by computers
  • Robots will work in factories doing work like assembling cars, welding, spray painting or operating warehouses.
  • Rich countries will automate their factories because of higher labour costs which will increase the Rich v Poor country gap.
  • Routine letters might be typed by computer, mail sorted and routed by computer and office workers working from home and joined by various data links
  • The world will see lots of home improvements from intricate controls for washing machines, cookers completely programmed and timed either remotely or as much in advance as desired, automatic vacuum cleaners, automatically controlled lights, electronic locks, burglar-proofing, electronic games, automatic air conditioning.
  • Physical newspapers may decline in place of update services via the TV. The more ephemeral the word becomes , the less care will be put into producing it. ‘Words writ in water’ will be become an electronic reality.
  • Other display facilities may become available on the domestic television screen; programmes of theatres and other forms of entertainment, together with a selection of critical reviews and the possibility of purchasing tickets; stock exchange information and automatic access to the stockbroker or his automated equivalent.
  • The possibility of dialing from your TV a word to obtain the relevant entry from the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
  • baby surveillance cameras
  • bedside stories piped directly to the cot
  • Airline reservations from the home as well as holiday displays and bookings.

 

Sadly Ernest Braun died in 2015 but Stuart MacDonald is thankfully still with us and I only wonder how he thinks our technological revolution of the last 40 years actually turned out?

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