An (Incomplete) History of Digital Technology

An (Incomplete) History of Digital Technology

Your kids probably have a hard time imagining a world without computers. Yet home computers are only the latest evolution in a digital story that began back in the 1940s and ’50s. Here are just a few highlights:

1940s and ’50s: A scientist at MIT invents binary code in 1942. The first computers that use binary code- mammoth “mainframe” machines the size of football fields that store digital code in thousands of meticulously ordered file cabinets full of punch-cards-are built by the military to survey the sky for enemy planes.

1960s: The development of the microchip makes it possible for giant mainframes to become smaller, more portable, and less expensive. At this point, digital information and digital systems become very popular among engineers and other kinds of designers. As a result, almost every field begins to look toward computer technology to determine how it could serve them. Meanwhile, the Internet is in its infancy. Research centers and universities begin experimenting with the idea of connecting computers to allow several users in different locations to share large amounts of data and sophisticated computer programs. In 1969, ARPANET -a network of four computers and about 20 scientist users-starts up.

1970s and ’80s: Spurred by the advancements of programmers and enthusiasts who had begun designing computer programs for games, writing, and accounting, the first personal computers (known as “minicomputers”) break into the consumer market. The Apple II and Radio Shack TRS-80 hit the stores in 1977. In 1982, the first standardized Internet protocol is released, providing one common language for all computers in the rapidly expanding network. However, using this network still requires knowledge of arcane programming languages, and users can only share plain text with each other (no pictures, sound, or graphics). So programmers set to work designing an interface that will allow non-programmers to use the network and send and receive sounds, images, and even moving pictures. In 1989, this interface-the World Wide Web- is launched.

1990s: The advent of the parallel processor (a microchip that can manage multiple functions at once) brings unprecedented speed and power into home computing. More power on a single microchip means computers get smaller and lighter and portable laptop computers become popular. The establishment of the World Wide Web and Web “browsers” (using languages like Java and HTML) that allow your home computer to access multimedia Web sites spurs an explosion of Internet use. At the start of the ’90s, there are about 100,000 sites connected to the Internet worldwide. In 1993, there are 1 million. And as of 1999, there are nearly 40 million.


Parent Action Goal:

Learn more about new technologies.

Keep your eyes and ears open. It’s not hard to learn about digital technologies; just keep your eyes and ears open! Use the TV, radio, newspapers, or magazines in your home or at the local library. You might want to try Popular Mechanics, Omni, Discover, “Circuits” (the New York Times’ technology section), or Red Herring magazines, or your local paper’s science and technology pages.

Remember to use community resources. You don’t have to go far to actually see and even use new technologies; museums, libraries, and community centers offer opportunities to check out the latest digital gadgets. Don’t forget the educational value of window-shopping, too; you can learn about technology by visiting computer-related stores even if you never make a purchase!

Let your child teach you. Kids often take the lead in using new technologies by trying them out at school, at the library or community center, or at a friend’s house. At this age, your children are probably eager to show you what they can do with technology…and you’ll probably be surprised at what they know!

Check out…

The Parent’s Guide to the Internet (published by the U.S. Department of Education) is an excellent manual for families who want to learn about one of society’s most important technologies. Available online at

The Public Broadcasting System’s technology pages offer a wealth of information on the stories, people, and timeline behind digital technologies. Available

To see all kinds of technologies in action, try the books One Digital Day and 24 Hours in Cyberspace (Times Books, 1998). They offer 24-hour photo journeys around the world to see how the microchip is changing our lives.

How Stuff Works is a fun place to learn all about just that-from circuits to modems. Available at