16 Important Technologies: Who demonstrated each one first?

We enjoy such an abundance of computing riches that it’s easy to take wonderful technological ideas for granted. Yet so many of the pieces of our modern computing experience that we consider routine today were at one time unimaginable. After all, back in the early days of computing, we were still discovering what these newfangled room-filling gadgets might eventually become capable of — who could have known then what using computers would be like today?

Of course, we have these technologies today because some visionaries did know, did imagine them… and, best of all, built and demonstrated them.

Hence today’s challenge:

Quiz: For each of the following 16 technologies that have become commonplace in our modern computing experience, give the researcher/team and approximate year that a working prototype was first demonstrated. How many can you answer without a web search?

  • The personal computer for dedicated individual use, that one person can have at their disposal all day long. (Hint: Before the Altair in 1975 and Apple I in 1976.)
  • Mouse input with a graphical pointer. (Hint: Before the Xerox Alto at Xerox PARC in 1973.)
  • Internetworks across campuses and cities. (Hint: Before Ethernet at Xerox PARC (again) in 1973.)
  • Discovery of ‘who’s got what service’ in an internetwork.
  • Using internetworks for live collaboration, not just file sharing. (Hint: Before RDP and others.)
  • Hierarchical structure within a file system and within a document. (Hint: Before Unix.)
  • Cut/copy/paste, with drag-and-drop.
  • Paper metaphor for word processing, starting with a blank piece of paper and the applying  formatting and navigating levels in the structure of text.
  • Advanced pattern search and macro search within documents. (Hint: Before MIT’s Emacs.)
  • Keyword search and multiple weighted keyword search. (Hint: Long before Google (alternate link).)
  • Information retrieval through indirect construction of a catalog.
  • Flexible interactive formatting and line drawing.
  • Hyperlinks within a document and across documents, and “jumping on a link” to navigate. (Hint: Before Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989-1990.) (Hint’: Yes, before HyperCard too.)
  • Tagging graphics, and parts of graphics, as hyperlinks. (Hint: Before Flickr.)
  • Workgroup collaboration on a document, including collaborative annotations, allowing members of a group to use and modify a document. (Hint: Before Lotus Notes and Ward Cunningham’s Wikis.)
  • The next step up from that: Live collaboration on a document with screen sharing on the two writers’ computers so they can see what the other is doing — with live audio/video teleconference in a window at the same time. (Hint: Not Skype or LiveMeeting.)

13 thoughts on “16 Important Technologies: Who demonstrated each one first?

  1. The technological advancements and innovations of today are spectacular, don’t you agree?

  2. With the amount of attention given to what exactly is meant by a personal computer, maybe I should have left that bullet out, and split the last one into its two major parts to keep the list length at a nice power-of-two. :-)

    To Peter: Yes, that is why I tried to emphasize “demonstrate.” The intent of the exercise was to highlight the achievement of showing a working prototype, or proof of concept, which is what marks the boundary between science and engineering.

  3. I suspect the line defining the first personal computer meeting those requirements is a bit fuzzy. I notice you say “demonstrate”, not “ship”, which would probably qualify a non-economically feasible prototype.

    I’d hazard a guess that the early HP programmable calculators (98xx series – early 1970’s) would qualify as stand-alone personal computers (despite the “calculator” moniker), but somehow I think you’re looking for something much earlier.

  4. I see there’s been some confusion about what I meant by “personal computer.” Note that I worded that bullet specifically:

    The personal computer for dedicated individual use, that one person can have at their disposal all day long.

    That wording intentionally rules out pre-timesharing computers like ENIAC and TX-0 that just happened to only be usable by one person at a time. They were clearly not individual property for the dedicated use of only one person.

  5. I’m guess the answer to the first PC is the TX-0 owned by the Tech Model Railroad Club (1959?). Was used by single users, had a word processor etc.

  6. “Personal computer” is such a biased term. One site claims the first was “Simon” from the 1950s. But it doesn’t seem to have what Babbage called “eating its own tail”. It’s more a programable calculator. If you include that, then there were likely mechanical computers as well.

    Mouse is, of course, Engelbart, 1968.

    By “internetwork” I assume that means between two different types of networks, and that it excludes voice, telegraph, and video. Then I’ll guess ARPANET, October 29, 1969. There were, of course, other ways to do point-to-point connections before then.

    “Using internetworks for live collaboration”. I was going to say Engelbart’s Mother of All Demos showed that, but I’m thrown off by the “internetwork” part. I think they had a dedicated line from San Francisco to the SRI office.

    I’m going to guess that Engelbart’s NLS includes some of the other things you asked about, like multiple users editing the same document, with video support. Quoting Wikipedia: “One of NLS’s most revolutionary features, the Journal, was developed in 1970 by Australian computer engineer David A. Evans[1] as part of his doctoral thesis. The Journal was a primitive hypertext-based groupware program which can be seen as a predecessor (if not the direct ancestor) of all contemporary server software that supports collaborative document creation (like wikis). ”

    Multics had a hierarchical file system, which is where Thompson got the idea from, for Unix. But there could have been systems before that.

    “Copy&paste” was from Larry Tesler. According to his resume, “first implemented in Gypsy in 1974-75”. But I seem to recall the Engelbart demo having some mechanism for that. Then to add “with drag and drop” of text … no idea.

    I don’t know what “Paper metaphor for word processing” means. Is that TeX? Or do you mean WYSIWYG word processing? Or do you want: “RUNOFF was the first computer text formatting program to see significant use. It was written in 1964 for the CTSS operating system by Jerome H. Saltzer in MAD assembler.”?

  7. ‘PC’ is a funny one. You can argue that the PC was about the economics it introduced, which drove everything else (and was the only really new thing). So, by that definition, you still have the Altair, or maybe the programmable calculators of the 70s. Otherwise, there were ‘one user’ machines from day 1 (even the Analytic Engine if you want).

  8. I thought I could answer the first 3 questions until I read the comments specifically indicating that the answer I thought was correct was wrong! I look forward to you posting the answers to these questions.

  9. Back in the late 1980s, I had a Computer Science professor who claimed that he had not found, or been told of, anything really newer than 1964. He said he’d had to do a lot of digging for some challenges, and he couldn’t trace some things back before 1964. Unfortunately, I never talked to him about that in detail.

  10. I think Douglas Engelbert’s 1968 “mother of all demos” demonstrates most of this stuff :)

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