Computer architecture is usually described in terms of bits. For instance, we often speak of early personal computers from the late 1970s and early 1980s as 8-bit machines. In simple terms, this means that the CPUs in these computers could only address 8 bits of data at a time, with each bit representing a single binary digit (0 or 1). But even when the first episodes of The Computer Chronicles started to air in late 1983, there were already 16-bit processors on the market, such as the Intel 8086, and 32-bit machines had started to become a reality.
Today, we think of networking as synonymous with the Internet–a global interconnected network that encompasses not just computers but also millions of “smart” devices. But in this episode of The Computer Chronicles from late 1983, the focus was on local area networking or LANs. Stewart Cheifet and Gary Kildall talked with representatives from two companies that were at the forefront of developing the still-emerging standards for computer networking. Cheifet opened by asking Kildall to define a local area network.
David Murray, who goes by The 8-Bit Guy on YouTube, had a great video a couple of years back on “How Speech Synthesizers Work." He explained that early devices like the Texas Instruments “Speak & Spell” were not true speech synthesizers, as they relied on a limited vocabulary of pre-recorded words. But even in the mid-1980s there were speech synthesizers that could build words out of basic sounds. Today’s episode of The Computer Chronicles from early 1984 also examined the status of speech synthesis during this time period.
In a recent essay for the socialist journal Current Affairs, Matthew James Seidel recounted a story from 2013 where “delivery drivers came up with an unexpected way to prevent robots from taking their jobs. They beat the robots with baseball bats and stabbed them in their ‘faces.'” Seidel quipped that “[s]ome robots got off easy; they were merely abducted and shut away in basements.” The intellectual–and sometimes physical–battle over the use of robots to replace human labor was the subject of a late 1983 episode of The Computer Chronicles.
Roger Ebert wrote in his four-star review of the 1983 film WarGames, “Computers only do what they are programmed to do, and they will follow their programs to illogical conclusions.” In the movie, Matthew Broderick played a teenage hacker who managed to remotely access the United States missile defense system and initiate a “Global Thermonuclear War” scenario that he mistakes for a computer game. Ultimately, Ebert said the film’s message was, “Sooner or later, one of these self-satisfied, sublimely confident thinking machines is going to blow us all off the face of the planet.
Since the 1990s, word processing has largely been dominated by Microsoft Word. That’s not to say no alternatives exist. But that’s the thing–they are alternatives to Word, which has essentially been the default for most people who use word processing, particularly in a business setting. Of course, Word didn’t start out on top. It was first released in October 1983. At that time, the dominant word processing program was WordStar, which had already been on the market for several years.
Some early episodes of The Computer Chronicles were apparently repackaged as The Computer Chronicles Telecourse. Today’s episode was part of that telecourse and includes a series of interstitial segments hosted by SRI International’s Herbert Lechner, whom we met in the first broadcast episode. Lechner’s segments mostly review the key concepts discussed in the regular episode and refer to an accompanying textbook for students to follow. I’ve been unable to learn much about this telecourse or what it included.
Normally, The Computer Chronicles demos consumer software and hardware. Stewart Cheifet often described his role as doing the legwork on behalf of the viewer so they knew what products to buy. This particular episode, however, goes in a somewhat different direction. The subject is simulator software, but aside from the opening host segment, the episode is largely devoted to proprietary software used in non-consumer applications. Flight Simulators – Computer Game vs.
We begin this episode of The Computer Chronicles from February 1984 with Stewart Cheifet plunking on an unspecified model of Casiotone keyboard. Cheifet remarked to Gary Kildall, “This is an example of computer music,” which was this week’s subject. Cheifet added that the Casiotone could play special ROM chips that contain “popular songs” in electronic form. Cheifet asked Kildall to explain how a computer makes music. Kildall replied that while the Casiotone was not a “general purpose computer,” contemporary personal computers like those manufactured by IBM and Commodore have “tone generation capability.
There was apparently a roughly two-month gap between the taping of episodes of The Computer Chronicles in late 1983 and their initial airing in early 1984. Looking back 37 years later, this gap may not seem that significant. But in just the second broadcast episode, it may be that Chronicles unintentionally provided information that was already out-of-date to its PBS audience. Integrated Software — The Descendants of Xerox The subject of this episode was “integrated software,” i.