This Week In Tech History: Back To The Future



October 19, 1979                             

Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston release Visicalc, the first electronic spreadsheet and the first killer app for personal computers.

October 20, 2010                             

The first World Statistics Day is celebrated.

Here he comes big with Statistics, Troubled and sharp about fac’s. He has heaps of the Form that is thinkable—The stuff that is feeling he lacks.—Robert Louis Stevenson

Our modern reliance on numbers and quantification was born and nurtured in the scientific and commercial worlds of the seventeenth century… Numerical facts trounced opinions and were supposed to foster community consensus, because all thinking people would naturally agree if they possessed total and accurate information—Patricia Cline Cohen, A Calculating People, 1999

In an increasingly complex world full of senseless coincidence, what’s required in many situations is not more facts – we’re inundated already – but a better command of known facts, and for this a course in probability is invaluable—John Allen Paulos, Innumeracy, 1988

I keep saying that the sexy job in the next 10 years will be statisticians. And I’m not kidding—Hal Varian, 2009

"Is the world a better place today?" (isWBPT) is a web-based, interactive visualisation app based on the Millenium Develoment Goals data.

“Is the world a better place today?” (isWBPT) is a web-based, interactive visualisation app based on the Millenium Develoment Goals data.

October 21, 2015

Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown arrives in the future in his DeLorean time machine, bringing Marty McFly and his girlfriend, Jennifer Parker, to help their future children by being transported from October 26, 1985.


October 23, 2001

Apple Computer introduces the iPod portable music player with the slogan “1,000 songs in your pocket.” It features a 5GB capacity 1.8″ hard drive, FireWire connectivity, and a mechanical scroll wheel. Apple also releases version 2.0 of iTunes, with Steve Jobs announcing that “iTunes 2 seamlessly integrates with iPod to revolutionize the portable MP3 music experience.”

IPod 1000 songs

October 24, 1861

The transcontinental telegraph, the first instant communications link between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, is completed. The first message is sent to President Abraham Lincoln from Horace W. Carpentier, president of the Overland Telegraph Co.: “I announce to you that the telegraph to California has this day been completed. May it be a bond of perpetuity between the states of the Atlantic and those of the Pacific.”

Instant communications made the Pony Express obsolete, and it officially ceased operations two days later. For its 18 months of operation, the Pony Express reduced the time for messages to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts to about ten days.

Life without instant communication (and before travel by railway), is described well by Stephen Ambrose in Undaunted Courage:

A critical fact in the world of 1801 was that nothing moved faster than the speed of a horse. No human being, no manufactured item, no bushel of wheat … no letter, no information, no idea, order, or instruction of any kind moved faster. Nothing ever had moved any faster, and, as far as contemporaries were able to tell, nothing ever would.


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This Week In Tech History: Steve Jobs And The NeXT Big Thing


October 12, 1988

Steve Jobs unveiled the NeXT Computer at Symphony Hall in San Francisco. A day or two later, I was among a standing-room only crowd at Boston’s Symphony Hall admiring the all-black, beautifully-designed “workstation” with a brand-new optical drive (no hard disk drive in the computer of the future according to Jobs) that played a duet with a human violinist.

That night I sent a gushing memo to my colleagues at DEC, telling them that the future has arrived and that Jobs education-sector-first marketing strategy was brilliant. Indeed, CERN was one of the early adopters and Tim Berners-Lee developed the first WWW browser/editor on the NeXT workstation. But NeXT Computer, Inc. went on to sell only 50,000 beautifully-designed “cubes,” getting out of the hardware business altogether in 1993.

For many years, I have kept in my office the “Computing advances to the NeXT level” poster I got that night as a reminder that forecasting the next big (or small) thing in technology is tough, even impossible.

And yet, many people believe that technology marches according to some “laws” or pre-defined trajectory and that all we have to do is decipher the “evolutionary” path technology (or the economy or society) is destined to follow.

Jobs went on to introduce the iPod and  the iPad, industry-changing devices whose invention was made possible, among other things, by a tiny disk drive. The possibility of a significant boost to the simultaneous shrinking (of size) and enlarging (of capacity) of disk drives was known since the discovery of the giant magnetoresistance effect in the very same year the NeXT Computer was introduced, 1988. Still, no one predicted the iPod.  Similarly, in 1990 no one predicted how the Web will change how we consume and create information or in 2000, how server virtualization will change the cost and availability of IT-on-demand, although both technologies existed at the time.

To quote someone who had the opportunity to meet his future, “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if preserved in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.” We cannot predict our future. But, like Ebenezer Scrooge, we can create it. Steve Jobs did.

The move Steve Jobs opened Friday, October 9, 2015, with the launch of the NeXT Computer as one of the three product launches that form its story line.

October 13, 1860

James Wallace Black made the first successful aerial photographs in the United States. He photographed Boston from a hot-air balloon at 1,200 feet. One good print resulted, which Black titled “Boston as the Eagle and the Wild Goose see it.”

October 13, 1983

The wireless industry was born when the head of Ameritech Mobile Communications placed the first commercial cellphone call from Chicago (home of the first city-wide cellular network) to Alexander Graham Bell’s grandson in Germany. By the end of 2014, annual wireless revenues were 187.8 billion, wireless penetration in the U.S. was 110%, and 44% of U.S. households were wireless-only. Annual wirelss data usage rose from 1.468 trillion megabytes in 2012 to 4.06 trillion megabytes in 2014.

October 14, 1888

Louis Le Prince shot Roundhay Garden Scene, the earliest surviving motion picture.


October 15, 1973

Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson presented their first paper on Unix at the Fourth ACM Symposium on Operating Systems Principles (SOSP). The paper was later published in the July 1974 issue of Communications of the ACM. Ritchie and Thompson received the Turing Award from the ACM in 1983, the Hamming Medal from the IEEE in 1990 and the National Medal of Technology from President Clinton in 1999.

October 17, 1907

Guglielmo Marconi inaugurated the first regular transatlantic radio-telegraph service between Clifden, Ireland and Glace Bay, Canada.

October 18, 1954

Texas Instruments announced the first transistor radio, the Regency TR-1, which sold for $49.95 (about $440 in today’s dollars).

October 18, 1999

Steve Jobs was featured on the cover of Time magazine. Jobs talked about his two companies, Apple Computer and Pixar, in “Steve’s Two Jobs” by Michael Krantz. It starts with the sentence: “It’s 3:00 P.M. in Richmond, Calif., and Steve Jobs is micromanaging.”

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This Week In History: Making Copies and Giant Brains

First xerographic copy - 10-22-38 ASTORIA. Source: Wikipedia

First xerographic copy, 1938. Source: Wikipedia

October 6, 1942

Chester Carlson received a patent for electrophotography which he invented four years earlier.  Searching for a buyer for his invention between 1939 and 1944, Carlson was turned down by more than 20 companies, including IbM, GE, Eastman Kodak and RCA. In 1946, Haloid, a small photo-paper maker in Rochester, New York, agreed to license electrophotography.  Haloid changed the name of the technology to xerography in 1948 and, in 1961, changed the name of the company to Xerox.  In 1960, when the company shipped the first cheap and convenient office copier (the 914), there were predictions that it may sell 5,000 units in 3 years, but by the end of 1962, 10,000 units have been sold.

In 1955, four years before the introduction of the 914, the world made about 20 million copies, almost all of them by non-xerographic means; in 1964, five years after the introduction of the 914, it made nine and a half billion, almost all xerographically. Five hundred and fifty billion in 1984. Seven hundred billion in 1985. And in 2004, the world produced more than three trillion xerographic copies.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote in “The Social Life of Paper” in 2002:  “This is one of the great puzzles of the modern workplace. Computer technology was supposed to replace paper. But that hasn’t happened. Every country in the Western world uses more paper today, on a per-capita basis, than it did ten years ago. The consumption of uncoated free-sheet paper, for instance—the most common kind of office paper—rose almost fifteen per cent in the United States between 1995 and 2000.”

In the same year, Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper published The Myth of the Paperless Office: “The paperless office is a myth not because people fail to achieve their goals, but because they know too well that their goals cannot be achieved without paper. This held true over thirty years ago when the idea of the paperless office first gained some prominence, and it holds true today at the start of the twenty-first century.”

Today, the average office worker uses 10,000 sheets of copy paper every year. Collectively, that’s 4 million tons of copy paper used in one year in the U.S. alone.

October 7, 1806

Ralph Wedgwood received the first patent for carbon paper. Wedgwood, like his Italian contemporary and fellow carbon paper inventor Pellegrino Turri, was trying to help blind people write, the “black paper” being a substitute for ink.

As late as 1955, Chester Carlson was still making carbon copies of his own letters.

October 8, 1996

ENIACstamp50U.S. Postal Service issued a new stamp commemorating the 50th birthday of ENIAC, the first large-scale, electronic digital computer and 50 years of computer technology. This was the first U.S. Stamp dedication to be broadcast live over the InterNet’s MBONE. Stamp collectors in 6 countries were able to watch and listen in real time.

The stamp shows an image of a brain partially covered by small blocs that contain parts of circuit boards and binary code. The image encapsulates well the conviction that computers are giant brains, articulated in 1949 by Edmund Berkeley in his book, Giant Brains or Machines that Think: “Recently there have been a good deal of news about strange giant machines that can handle information with vast speed and skill….These machines are similar to what a brain would be if it were made of hardware and wire instead of flesh and nerves… A machine can handle information; it can calculate, conclude, and choose; it can perform reasonable operations with information. A machine, therefore, can think.” Thirty years later, Marvin Minsky famously stated: “The human brain is just a computer that happens to be made out of meat.”

To which Joseph Weizenbaum replied: “What do these people actually mean when they shout that man is a machine (and a brain a ‘meat machine’)? It is… that human beings are ‘computable,’ that they are not distinct from other objects in the world… all this is not the fault of the computer. Guilt cannot be attributed to computers. But computers enable fantasies, many of them wonderful, but also those of people whose compulsion to play God overwhelms their ability to fathom the consequences of their attempt to turn their nightmares into reality. I recall, in this connection, a debate I once had with Herbert Simon. Perhaps frustrated by my attitudes, he shouted: ‘Knowledge is better than ignorance!’ (I think he thought he had me there). I replied:  ‘Yes! But not at any price.’”

But Weizenbaum was in a small and ever-decreasing minority. In his 2005 book, The Singularity is Near, Ray Kurzweil predicted that by 2045, machine intelligence may equal or surpass the collective intelligence of all human beings on Earth.

October 11, 1979

The Nobel Prize in Medicine is awarded to Allan M. Cormack and Godfrey N. Hounsfield for the “development of computer assisted tomography”. About 80 million CT scans are currently performed annually in the U.S., up from 3 million in 1980.

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This Week In Tech History: Think Different

Apple_ThinkDifferent_EinsteinSeptember 28, 1997

Apple Computer launched the “Think different” marketing campaign. The campaign’s television commercials featured black-and-white footage of 17 iconic 20th century personalities and a free-verse poem read by Richard Dreyfuss, starting with the words “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. “ These turned out to be the opening lines in the second act of Steve Jobs and Apple.

The campaign’s slogan, “Think different,” was probably a play on the much earlier slogan “THINK,” coined by Thomas J. Watson, Sr.  In the winter of 1911, Watson ordered that signs with just one word–THINK–be put all over the NCR factory in Dayton, Ohio. Later, as CEO of IBM, he told his sales people: “Every man on the selling force of this business today would make two dollars where he now only makes one, if he would but THINK along the right line. ‘I didn’t think’ has cost the world millions of dollars.”


Thomas Watson Sr.

In 2011, Google started publishing Think Quarterly, “to prepare you for what happens next.”


September 29, 1936

Franklin Delano Roosevelt opened his campaign for re-election with a speech to the New York State Democratic Convention. This was the first U.S. presidential campaign in which both parties used radio broadcasts to deliver their messages and present their candidate to a national audience.


September 30, 1915

David Sarnoff, Chief Inspector for The Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America (and later CEO of RCA and NBC) wrote to his superiors: “I have in mind a plan of development which will make radio a ‘household utility’ in the same sense as the piano or phonograph. The idea is to bring music into the home by wireless. The receiver can be designed in the form of a simple ‘Radio Music Box,’ placed on a table in the parlor or living room.”  Sarnoff may have actually written this memo in 1920, but later claimed it was written before 1916, the year Lee De Forest and others started broadcasting news and transmitting music over the wireless to multiple recipients.

David Sarnoff Photo courtesy of the David Sarnoff Research Center

David Sarnoff
Photo courtesy of the David Sarnoff Research Center

October 4, 1955

The first field trial of a rural telephone system making use of transistors and the Bell Solar Battery was held in Americus, Georgia. Almost one quarter of the world’s population today lives without electricity, and solar-powered mobile phones dominate their long-distance communications.


Bell Labs engineer testing solar battery in 1954

Solar powered Samsung phone

Solar powered Samsung phone

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Data Visualization, 350BC – 1879

data visualization infographic

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The Tech Boom of the 1880s


Vaclav Smil in IEEE Spectrum:

According to the worshippers of the e-world, the late 20th century brought us an unprecedented number of profound inventions. But that is a categorical misunderstanding, as most recent advances have been variations on the microprocessor theme and on the parsing of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Perhaps the most inventive time was the 1880s. Have any two sets of primary inventions and epochal discoveries shaped the modern world more than electricity and internal combustion engines?

Martin Wolf in Foreign Affairs:

Past innovations generated vastly greater unmeasured value than the relatively trivial innovations of today… What we know for the moment is that there is nothing extraordinary in the changes we are now experiencing. We have been here before and on a much larger scale.

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Mobile Phone Evolution

MobilePhoenEvolutionHT: @ValaAfshar

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