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The Origin of the “Personal” Computer

The popular myth surrounding the origin of the personal computer is that it grew entirely out of the efforts of the private sector. This story, however, neglects the government’s concerted effort to support this new technology with both funding and personnel, before, during and long after its “birth” at Xerox.

What makes the PC “personal” is its human-computer interface (HCI). It is the HCI that makes it possible for the technically challenged to get the computer to do work. The HCI was first conceptualized by Vannevar Bush, the chief science advisor to Harry Truman. He envisioned a computer with a monitor and keyboard that would sit on a desktop and provide access to a virtual library. Vannevar Bush and his successors used their government positions to support research to make this technology a reality.

With research support from the Army, Navy, and Air Force, Ivan Sutherland of MIT, made what was arguably the seminal breakthrough in the development of HCI. He created in 1962 a program called Sketchpad which was the first to use a monitor and a mouse-like pointing device. Sutherland became director of the Information Technology project at the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). He provided funding to establish the computer science departments at Stanford, Carnegie-Mellon, Utah and MIT, and he pushed them to develop the work he had begun with Sketchpad.

Sutherland’s successor at DARPA, Robert Taylor, continued to support work on developing the HCI, and he went on to the become the head of the Computer Science Laboratory at the Xerox Corporation’s PARC facility. Along with other computer scientists who had been supported with DARPA research funds, Taylor helped create the first recognizable PC with a word processor, a printer, file folders, title bars, scroll bars, drop-down menus and multi-tasking. It was this Xerox PARC technology that was then successfully commercialized by Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. The image of tinkerers giving birth to the personal computer in their garages is just another part of the myth of the self-sufficient market.

Sources:

Allan, Roy A. A History of the Personal Computer: The People and the Technology. London, Ont.: Allan Pub, 2001.

Fong, Glenn R. "ARPA Does Windows: The Defense Underpinning of the PC Revolution." Business and Politics 3, no. 3 (2001): 213-237.


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