This episode of Computer Chronicles introduces some minor tweaking to the format established during the initial 1983-84 season. The first is the addition of Wendy Woods as a correspondent. Woods takes over narrating the customary B-roll feature following the introduction and also conducts remote interviews with guests related to the topic of the week. The second change is Stewart Cheifet now gives a brief “cold open” before each episode introducing the theme.
You often hear people describe modern smartphones as a “supercomputer in your pocket.” There’s definitely some truth to that, especially when you compare today’s phones with the supercomputers of 40 years ago. In the mid-1980s, supercomputer manufacturers were still struggling with concepts like parallel processing, i.e., breaking down a program into smaller tasks that could run simultaneously on multiple microprocessors. Today, in contrast, multi-core, multi-threaded CPU cores are the norm on just about every personal computing device.
For this episode, I’m going to handle things a bit differently. There was only a single guest–Stanford University computer science professor Edward Feigenbaum–and the subject is one that, quite frankly, does not strike me as all that interesting. So rather than do an extended point-by-point recap of the episode, I’m just going to summarize in broad strokes. Trust me, if you had watched the episode, you’d thank me. Stanford Professor Discusses AI, Future of Japanese Computing Initiative You may recall that Feigenbaum appeared in an earlier episode, which I recapped in Part 20.
This next Computer Chronicles episode focuses squarely on people rather than products. The formal subject is “computer entrepreneurs.” And the four guests are people who were all quite well known in the computer industry during the early 1980s. What’s fascinating, as we’ll see a bit later, is that two of the guests had ventures that each managed to flame out not long after this episode aired. “I Had Been Working My Whole Life to Build a Certain Type of Computer for Myself.
The ostensible topic of this next Computer Chronicles episode is databases. But what we’re really talking about here are early online information systems–that is, the precursor to the modern Internet. This was a time (1984) when just getting online was a chore. First, you needed a personal computer with a separate modem peripheral connected to a telephone line. Then you needed a subscription to an online service. The service itself charged you by the minute or hour for access–and that was on top of any long-distance phone charges you might incur if the service did not have a local number.
Personal computers of the early 1980s were often limited to just a few colors for on-screen graphics. The Apple IIe, for example, could display up to 16 colors at one time depending on the screen resolution. And of course, no home computer of this era could produce genuine 3D graphics. That capability was limited to very high-end machines designed for industrial or commercial use. The Special Talents of Computer Graphics Which brings us to our next Computer Chronicles episode from 1984.
In Part 14 of this series, the Computer Chronicles first discussed the subject of “expert systems.” This referred to computer knowledge bases that purported to replicate a human’s expertise in a particular field. This next Chronicles episode revisits the idea of expert systems as part of a broader discussion of artificial intelligence. The Link Between the Mechanical World and Abstract Concepts Herbert Lechner is back as Stewart Cheifet’s co-host for this episode.
When Apple released the Macintosh–later known as the Macintosh 128K–in January 1984, its main selling point was the graphical user interface (GUI). Although the original Macintosh operating system’s GUI was largely based on what Apple deployed on the Lisa a year earlier, the company believed the new machine’s lower price point would make the interface more accessible to a larger audience. Of course, the Macintosh was not exactly cheap, even by 1984 personal computer standards.
In Part 16, we saw a demonstration of Apple Logo, a computer programming language promoted as an alternative to BASIC. This next episode of The Computer Chronicles features another version of Logo–this one developed and sold by co-host Gary Kildall’s Digital Research–as well as a broader discussion of the state of computer programming languages around early 1984. The other languages presented in this episode–COBOL, Forth, and Pascal–are still in use today, even if they are not necessarily at the top of the Stack Overflow survey of most popular programming languages.
This next episode of The Computer Chronicles from 1984 is about storage devices, specifically disk drives. At this point in the microcomputer revolution, the 5.25-inch floppy disk is the accepted standard. But a number of new technologies are vying to supplant it. And while Gary Kildall was bullish on at least some of these new technologies eventually gaining mainstream acceptance, one of the guests aggressively pushed back on the idea.