On December 26, 1982, Time Magazine broke from its tradition of naming a human being as Man of the Year and gave the honor to the personal computer. The machine was becoming more accessible to the average user, and as the magazine article said, “…the entire world will never be the same.”
I’m not sure if the decision makers at Time were aware of this, but December 26 happens to be the birthday of Charles Babbage, considered the father of the computer. The 18th-century Englishman recalled sitting in a room of his own Analytical Society and dreamily looking at a table covered with logarithms. A colleague asked what he was dreaming about, and Babbage replied, "I am thinking that all these tables might be calculated by machinery.”
He then set out to create machines that would compute numerical tables and perform the task reliably and efficiently. While he didn’t complete the projects, working models have since been built using his plans, and we now know Babbage was onto something huge.
One of Babbage’s machines, the Difference Engine, would have weighed 15 tons and stood eight feet high, and it would have only been used by people whose job it was to compute. Jump forward to the 21st century when we all have access to computers, and portable ones at that. My laptop weighs just three pounds, in fact, and I have computing ability on a telephone the size of a credit card.
Because of the personal computer, and subsequently the Internet, my daily life is not what it used to be. Here’s what I mean: In 1982, I was using an electric typewriter and making a mess with correction fluid, spending hours thumbing through shelves of books for one single fact and wishing I had access to more information.
Now, by 8:00 a.m. on an average day, I have most likely checked e-mail, scanned the newsfeed on Facebook, read headlines on a few favorite news sites and seen at least one picture of a kitten.
By 9:00 a.m., I have likely begun a writing project by doing research online, looking up historical facts, choosing words in a thesaurus and hunting for relevant quotes. Or, I have started a graphic design project, using computer software to layout text, barcodes and artwork I have downloaded from stock websites. And all the while, I have listened to music I have bought online, checked in with blogs I frequent and followed up on the morning’s news headlines.
Later on, I might have read about how best to leash-train my enthusiastic puppy or how to clean those big, floppy ears of his. Closer to dinnertime, I might have searched for a recipe to match the ingredients I have on hand.
I’ll get driving directions, check the weather ten days out, order a sweater from that store that’s so far away, research my family history, exchange photos with my daughter in California, look up the mailing address of my aunt in Alabama, order flowers for my mother in Georgia, get design tips from a friend in England and donate money to an orphanage in Romania—through Facebook, I learned they have recently had a devastating fire. And by bedtime, I’ll find a knitting pattern, buy some yarn, read a book review, buy the book, begin reading the book, watch a video of an orchestra performance and download the recording.
Despite his forward-thinking nature, I doubt Babbage had this list of activities in mind when he was pouring over logarithms, but even the father of an invention can’t fully imagine its potential, and uses for the computer have evolved just as the size and shape of the machine itself. When once the machines were unwieldy, they are now handy. When once they were only for certain functions, they are now relevant to every aspect of life. And when once they were scarce, they are now available to everyone.
Few have been unaffected by the massive impact of personal computers, even those of us who live average lives crunching as few numbers as possible. In honor of the father of these remarkable machines and what they have done to transform daily life, I say, “Thank you, Mr. Babbage, for thinking forward and for being dreamy. The entire world will never be the same.”
Note: I realize it's a long thread that srings from Point A (Charles Babbage) to Point B (my modern life), but you get the idea.