The Machine that Changed the World – Full Documentary


Episode I: Giant Brains

Episode II: Inventing the Future

Episode III: The Paperback Computer

Episode IV: The Thinking Machine

Episode V: The World at Your Fingertips

Series release “1992

The Machine That Changed the World which was produced by WGBH Television in Boston MA, in cooperation with the British Broadcasting Corp., with support from ACM, NSF and UNISYS.

WGBH OpenVault Archives Full original interviews (uncut)

Episode recaps available on


Vol.1, Giant Brain, tells the story of the birth of computers and of the men and women who assisted in that birth: Charles Babbage, Alan Turing, Herman Goldstine, John Mauchly, Ada Lovelave and J. Presper Eckert. 

Vol.2, The Thinking Machine, is devoted to artificial intelligence, and what computer scientists, psychologists and philosophers have learned about human intelligence in the process of trying to teach computers to think. 

Vol.3, Inventing the Future, chronicles the rough times experienced by the computer pioneers, until the industry took off and changed the way the world does business. The program covers the invention of programming languages, and the hardware revolution that made computers smaller and cheaper and ultimately led to personal computers. 

Vol.4, The world at Your Fingertips, looks at the social revolution wrought by computers, and at what price: the disappearance of place as an attribute, the loss of privacy, the pollution of information and the near-catastrophes that can occur when computer networks take on a life of their own. 

Vol.5, The Paperback Computers, shows how room-sized number crunchers evolved into easy-to-use desktop machines. It also covers the development of microprocessors, the trailblazing of Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniac and Michael Markkula, and the arrial of a new generation for whom computers are not a machine at all, but a new medium.

Episode I – Great Brains

Commentary by Paul Ceruzzi (Smithsonian Institute) and Doron Swade (Science Museum, London)
What is a computer?
The Need for Tables
People as Computers
Charles Babbage (1791-1871)
The Jacquard Loom — source of the ideas about punched cards
The Difference Engine
The Analytical Engine
Ada Augusta King, Countess of Lovelace, programmer
Adaptability of Computers to a Variety of Problems
Konrad Zuse (1910-1995)
[Not mentioned in the video, Zuse’s machines were designated as the Z1 (1935-38), Z2 (1938), Z3 (1941) and Z4 (1945). The Z4 eventually led to s series of machines built by Siemens Corp.]
The ENIAC — Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator (unveiled 1946)
Built by John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert.
University of Pennsylvania
Firing Tables
Herman Goldstine, Army Lieutentant Aberdeen Proving Ground
The Stored Program Concept (1946)
John von Neumann (1903-1957)
Patent Problems
The First Computer Company
The Manchester Machine (1948)
“Freddy” Williams, developer (and developer of the Williams Tube)
EDSAC — University of Cambridge (1949)
Maurice Wilkes (1913-)
Alan M. Turing (1912-1954), a paper by John M. Kowalik, student in CS 3604
The Turing Test
Donald Michie (1923-)

And one who was missed from the video but who is very much involved in breaking the German Enigma Codes with Alan Turing and Donald Michie during the Second World War, and who was involved in the development of the Manchester Machine, is I. J. Good. Good is a faculty member in our Statistics department here at Virginia Tech! An excellent story on Jack also appeared in the Roanoke Times.

The ENIAC was 50 years old in 1996. The University of Pennsylvania put on a series of events during the year and established a WWW Home Page to keep you abreast of developments. It is intended that this page will also include a simulation of the ENIAC.

Episode II – Inventing the Future

The Growing Market for Computers
The First Computer Company
Bureau of the Census Machine
UNIVACA magazine advertisment of the time,
courtesy Unisys & GTE Sylvania, through WGBH Press Kit.
Magnetic Tape
Lyons Electronic Office- LEO
John Pinkerton
Commercial Applications
Cambridge University- EDSAC
McCarthyism – Impact on Mauchly
Henry Strauss
Remington Rand
1952 Presidential Election
IBM Enters the field
SSEC – Selective Sequence Electronic Computer
The First Drum Machine- IBM 650
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Programming Languages- Errors
Process Control and Automation
Bank of America – ERMA
Magnetic Ink Character Recognition – MICR
The Transistor
Brattain, Bardeen, Shockley (this link appears to have disappeared, we are looking for a good replacement)
Integrated Circuit- Kilby & Noyce
Computers and Space

Episode II of “The Machine That Changed the World”” had the opportunity to give credit for the ‘invention’ of the computer to one John Vincent Atanasoff. Atanasoff, together with a graduate student, Clifford Berry, developed a special purpose computer in the late 1930’s that contained many of the elements of the modern computer. However, the development of the machine was hampered by the outset of World War II, and both Atanasoff and Berry moved to other work. In a later court case between Honeywell and Sperry Rand, the judge found the orininal patent claims by John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert to be invalid, stating that the inventor of the computer was “One, John Vincent Atanasoff“.

Another missing person is Grace Murray Hopper. Dr. Hopper was perhaps the first modern woman to be involved in computers (Ada King, Countess of Lovelace possibly being the first in the 19th century). She started work for Howard Aiken in 1943 on the Harvard Mark I Calculator (also called the IBM ASCC). Sunsequently she became deeply involved in the development of high level languages for computers, creating the concept of a compiler, and two early languages. She was highly influential in the development of COBOL and its usage in military installations. She became the highest ranking female Navy person of her time (Rear Admiral) and a role model to thousands of young women. She is perhaps best known for her discovery of the first computer bug in the Harvard Mark II computer. The bug now resides at the National Museum of American History in Washington DC.

image from

Episode III – The Paperback Computer

Books in a Library
Commentary by Mitch Kapor and Robert Taylor.
Sketchpad – Ivan Sutherland
Commentary by Ted Nelson (son of Ozzie and Harriett)
Doug Engelbart – The Mouse. Engelbart also produced an extremely foresighted paper on “AUGMENTING HUMAN INTELLECT: A Conceptual Framework” published on 1962. It is a classic that should be on the reading list for all computer science majors. This paper is on-line courtesy of students at the Technical University Aachen, Germany.

Xerox PARC- Alan Kay (a biography by Scott Gasch)
Children – Jean Piaget
Games- Illusions
 The Alto Computer
Chips – Microprocessors
Ted Hoff
Altair 8800
Homebrew Computer Club
Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, photograph courtesy of the Apple Computer Company, through the WGBH new release on this video. See also “The Triumph of the Nerds” and a biography of Steven Wozniak by Manish Srivastava.
Blue Boxes – Personal Computers
Lee Felsenstein – IBM 5100
IBM PC – 1981
Macintosh – 1984
Macintosh computer interface
The first spreadsheet by Dan Bricklin Lotus 1,2,3 – Mitch Kapor
Microsoft – Bill Gates (an early history by John Mirick and a biography by Stacey Reitz.)
Sesame Street
Handicapped – Assistive Technology; an article by Christopher R. Murphy (CS 3604, Spring 1997)
Chained computers
New Projections
Virtual Reality: (Two articles by Scott Tate and Keith Mitchell, CS 3604, Fall 1996.)
Henry Fuchs – UNC
Fred Brooks, Jr.

Episode IV — The Thinking Machine.

Artificial Intelligence (A.I.)

Late 1950s – Marvin Minsky and John McCarthy set up an A.I. Dept. at MIT.
1960 – Slagel’s program for freshman calculus; from “number crunching” to intelligent problem solving.
Mind vs. Brain approach; mind = software, brain = hardware. (The notion that a thinking computer need not be modeled on the actual biology of the brain is in vogue.)
Block stacking program – lack of “common sense.”
1970 – Edinburgh University, “Freddie” image recognition application.
1970s – Stanford Kart; motion planning. (Huge computational resources and time required to navigate through a room which a four year old child can do in real time.)
Joseph Weizenbaum’s ELIZA.
Russian to English language translator – earliest of the non-numerical applications.
Underestimation of the difficulty of A.I. (Tasks difficult for humans are found easy for computers and vice versa. Computers lack background knowledge.)
Future of A.I. looks bleak – Dreyfus’ “What Computers Can’t Do.”
Terry Winograd’s SHRDLU – intelligence within microworlds.
Expert Systems – Feigenbaum’s DENDRAL. (Deep but very narrow areas of specialisation. Expert systems found to be “brittle.”)
“Idiot savants.”
Early 1970s – story understanding via scripts and frames. (Minsky.)
Modeling commonsense. (Children possess broad and shallow knowledge. People learn by extending the fringe of what they already know, therefore computers make bad pupils as they lack “basic knowledge.”)
1984 – Lenat’s ten-year CYC project to catalogue “commonsense.” (Create an encyclopedia of commonsense basic knowledge.)
A new look at modeling intelligence by modeling the biological brain.
1950s and 1960s – Perceptrons. (an article by Michele Estebon, CS 3604, 1997).
Late 1970s – Neural networks; Connectionists.
Self-driven vehicle – “trained” to drive.
Selective training – tank recognition failure.
Large networks require large training times.
Brain – a collection of special purpose machines –> general intelligence/ commonsense.
A.I. – history of fascinating failures.

Episode V — The World At Your Fingertips.

Rapid development of computers. (Forty-five years ago: ENIAC; $3,000,000 cost; believed only ever six needed. Now: millions of cheap computers; interconnected.)
Print media –> Digital media. (More options for indexing and searching.)
450 books on one CD.
Digital world vs. analog “real world.” (Patterns of digital pulses; 1 and 0.)
Real world digitized into digital form – permanence; no degradation. (Digitized picture cannot age; perfect memory.)
Digitized information amenable to rapid transmission. (Information sent down wires at the speed of light.)
Global communications lead to shrinking world – disappearance of “place” as an attribute.
Physical presence vs. “electronic presence” –> new forms of social interaction.
Global communities – distance no longer an obstacle. (Financial traders part of global financial community – physically separate but part of the same “community.”)
Stock market. (As many trades in a day as it used to be in a week.)
Increase of information travel rate.
Timeliness of information.
London Stock Exchange – physical “marketplace” rendered redundant.
New social gatherings – linked by common interest, not geography.
Internet and USENET – new forum for exchange of ideas.
Cold fusion – quicker interchange of ideas via USENET news than possible via existing journals.
SeniorNet – computer networks entering everyday lives.
Electronic presence. (Left by electronic traces we leave behind as part of our day to day lives. Constant information gathering.)
Data pollution – wrong information propagated between computers and databases. (Disrupts thousands of lives per year.)
Invasion of privacy – casual information gathering can give rise to distorted views of individuals.
Electronic sweat shops.
Technological evolution outpacing social evolution. (Alvin Toffler, “Future Shock.”)
1987 Stock Market crash. (“Programmed selling” instigated avalanche of selling leading to 508 point crash.)
Speed of light as a constraint.
Effect on stability of social systems.
Singapore – developed nation status via transformation into an “information society.”
“Digitization” of Singapore – Land Data Hub. (Database on all aspects of Singapore; complete electronic record.)
Singapore – total electronic efficiency.
Social engineering and control of people vs. tool for democracy.
MINITEL – large growth from one to 12,000 choices.
1986 – Student protests against admissions policies successfully coordinated via MINITEL.
The future is digital!
Dependence upon computers.
Computers programmed in “craftsmanlike” manner.
Software errors – no reliable engineering techniques for the production of software.
Software bugs – human consequences; Therac-25 radiation machine software malfunction.
AT&T telephone system crash caused by a single line of bad code. (Bug causes 20,000,000 phone calls being unable to connect and cripples phone network.)
Untestability of large software systems.
1989 – Dallas Fort Worth airport computer failure.
Unlike traditional engineering, small errors can completely cripple entire software systems.
Wheel turns full circle: Babbage’s inspiration stemmed from the desire to eliminate errors. However, computers are still prone to errors via programmers, as in Babbage’s time.
Communication central to digital future.
Uses of computers different from original goals.
Computer a medium, not a machine.

Additional stuff and thoughts:

This last episode of “The Machine That Changed The World” was produced in advance of the development of the World Wide Web, and thus cannot be expected to cover this development. However, the fact that the WWW is now a part of our lives is a proof of the fast pace of innovation in this field. Though in no way comprehensive, here is a list of some recent developments that might have been included in this series of videos:

About the author

Alex is a pioneer in using the cloud to meet the needs of small and medium sized business (SMBs) and membership-based organizations. He has a BSc in computer science from the University of Michigan and has worked as a product manager at two Internet startups. Alex is a father of 2 and plays the trumpet for fun. He is the founder and the president of the University of Michigan Alumni Club of Toronto.