The future of computing… 1983 style

In my latest visit to the world’s greatest place, Bookbarn (literally a warehouse full of books, currently at £1 — approximately US$1.60 — each), I picked up a book from 1983 that I distinctly remember reading as a child: The Beginner’s Computer Handbook. Looking back brings some amusement at the technology of the time, but also some amazement at the accuracy of predictions of the future.

This particular edition brings together three books: Understanding the Micro, Introduction to Computer Programming, and Computer Spacegames. It’s very much a product of the era of the home computing boom that I’ve previously written about: rather than being model specific it covers all the most popular models of the day such as the ZX81, the BBC Micro and the ZX Spectrum, and also some less well-remembered computers such as the Commodore PET with a built-in screen and an optional built-in cassette player (yep, it’s the forerunner of the iMac), the Oric 1 and the Grundy Newbrain.

Without wanting to be one of those people who complains about today’s kids having it too easy and not having to use their initiative, it’s still quite surprising to see that most of the sample program listings tell you what type of computer they are designed for and then effectively say “If you’ve got a different computer, just figure out for yourself how to adapt this.”

There are also some great explanations of how computers work which, being aimed at a young audience, do a remarkable job of getting to the very fundamentals of computing that we don’t often think of. For example, one section lists what a computer can actually do:

  • It can ask you for information.
  • It can store information.
  • It can do calculations.
  • It can select number at random by using RND.
  • It can make decisions by comparing items of information in various ways.
  • It can tell you the results of its calculations and decisions and also what is stored in its memory.
  • It cannot do anything unless you tell it to.
  • It can do only exactly what you tell it, even if it is silly.

There’s also one of the clearest explanations I’ve ever seen of how binary processing actually works:

Best of all though is the section on the history and future of computing. As with all computing histories, the emphasis is on how quickly things have progressed, with plenty of laughter at how ENIAC could carry out a calculation in three millionths of a second, while the 1980s machines could to it in one ten-millionth of a second. To put that into context, while the 1980s machine was thirty times faster than its 1945 counterpart, today’s fastest supercomputer is something like 260 million times faster than the 1980s model described in the book.

However, when it comes to the present and future, things are almost eerily accurate. According the writers of 1983, computers can be linked together on phone networks, but eventually fiber-optic cables under the oceans will be used to join continents together.

One day you will be able to do your shopping by computer, with the store’s comouter arranging delivery and contacting your bank to charge your account. Micros also allow users to send messages to one another much quicker than by regular mail. (The bizarre example given is “DEAR JOHN, PERHAPS YOU WOULD LIKE TO EXPLAIN YOUR BEHAVIOUR WITH THAT BOWL OF SOUP.”)

Meanwhile “business people can work at home using a micro in a network to communicate with a central computer in their office. They will have access to files and be able to send messages to colleagues in the network.”

And while the book doesn’t quite hit upon the World Wide Web, it does note that “Nowadays, more and more micros are being connected to computerized information centres called teletext systems. With a worldwide network of computers storing and exchanging information, you can have almost any knowledge at your fingertips.”

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