There’s a part of me that will always live back in that time when computers were for cutting-edge hobbyists. Today, computing devices are literally everywhere. They’re so common you don’t even see them. Chances are that every room in your house has at least a few computing devices. Your washing machine has more computing power than the most powerful computer in 1975. But think a moment about a time when that wasn’t true.
When computers were something rare
There was a time when simple computing devices just didn’t exist. And when consumers finally started to see them, they were special purpose devices designed for hobbyists. They weren’t “just the thing that runs your microwave.” This was a time rife with experimentation, when no one knew what direction the computer would go in.
It was also a time when industrial design was changing fast. The 1970s especially saw wild swings in what people thought of as “good looking.” From avocado-green appliances to crazy-looking buildings, it was a time when something new had to look different. “Retro” wasn’t a thing yet… we were all looking at the future.
I can’t quite tell you what the first computer I ever saw was. But, I can tell you that by the late 1970s I was big into the computer hobbyist market, even though I was pretty young at the time. And every new computer design was an opportunity for me to think about the far-off 21st century and how I hoped that I would be surrounded by fancy computers. I guess that wish came true, far more than I could have even imagined.
The strangest computers
Several years ago, YouTuber LGR came up with a video series on strange computers. Some of these may never have come to the US, but all of them will give you a bit of a chuckle. Remember, no one really knew how computers were going to be used, but there were certain things that couldn’t be ignored.
First and foremost, any truly useful computer was going to be big (by 21st century standards). We didn’t think of them as “big” back then; really big computers were the size of a house. We thought of a computer the size of a desk as “small.” But you couldn’t just have a computer the size of a paperback book that actually did anything. That’s not how that worked.
The other thing to consider with computers is the very act of having a personal computer of any kind was making a statement. It was putting you out there as “tech-forward,” saying you were embracing the future. That meant computers weren’t likely to be unobtrusive little boxes. They were meant to stand out.
Take a look
There’s a series of four videos spanning the 1970s to the 2000s. You can see that as time goes on, computers not only get smaller but more standardized. By the 1990s certainly, the only thing really unique about each computer is its outward appearance. The real innovation inside the box was long past.
Strange computers of the 2010s and 2020s?
I’d be really surprised if there were videos in this series for the 2000s and 2010s. Our phones have taken the role that computers played in the 20th century, and even they have become mostly boring rectangles with black glass on the front. But hey, LGR, if you make them I’ll watch them!