Today, Python is probably the most popular computer programming language taught in elementary and secondary schools. (There’s even a terrific podcast, Teaching Python, on this subject.) But back in the 1980s, BASIC was the language of choice for many introductory computer classrooms. Specifically, versions of Microsoft BASIC came with many popular 8-bit microcomputers, including the Apple II and Commodore 64, which were also commonly used in schools at the time.
Even if you’re only a casual gamer, there are probably a few video game designers whose names you’re familiar with, such as Sid Meier, Todd Howard, and Shigeru Miyamoto. From the early days of computer gaming, there was a concerted effort to promote certain “superstar” designers to help personalize and sell games to the public. This next episode of The Computer Chronicles featured three such designers from the early 1980s, as well as an executive whose name would become synonymous with computer and video game production in the decades that followed.
In a bit of eerie foreshadowing, this episode of The Computer Chronicles from January 1984 opened with a discussion of a global pandemic. Not a real one, of course, but a computer simulation. Stewart Cheifet and Gary Kildall played with a game called Epidemic, released by Strategic Simulations. Cheifet explained this was an example of how someone could use a computer to choose among alternatives, make a decision, and establish a complex strategy for solving a problem.
The episode I’m covering today taped on January 18, 1984, which was four days before Super Bowl XVIII. That game would go down in computing history for the famous Apple “1984” commercial that announced the launch of the original Macintosh (later known as the Macintosh 128K). As this Chronicles episode aired the week after the Super Bowl, Stewart Cheifet devoted a good portion of the post-show “Random Access” segment to the new machine and what it might mean for Apple for the rest of 1984.
Today’s episode contains what Stewart Cheifet would later describe as one of the classic “near disasters” involving a product demonstration on The Computer Chronicles. The subject was the first Xerox Color Laser Printer, which was actually a prototype not yet available for sale when this Chronicles episode taped in October 1983. Cheifet recounted the event to Tonya Hall of ZDNet in a November 2020 interview: We introduced the very first color laser printer on the show by Xerox.
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.