Spring 2022 ︎︎︎ SUNY Purchase College ︎︎︎ (DES3800) Design for Web & Screens

A Brief History of the Internet and computers


For this spiel, we’ll look at some historical contexts that lead to our contemporary version of the internet. The intention here is to look at the underlying technological conditions and how they influenced the surrounding culture.

Impersonal computing (the ENIAC)

The ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) is arguably one of the first computers. It was used during WWII to calculate missle firing tables. That is to say, in war to facilitate war. It was housed in an institute of higher learning (the University of Pennsylvania) and cost, in the money of the time roughly half a million dollars. It was the size it was (as you can see in pictures below) because it ran on vacuum tubes rather than transistors, and existed before any real miniaturization of circuitry had occured. Note also there are no “graphics” or “display” to speak of.

(some passive transistors)
(some vacuum tubes)

Culturally, it is of note that the computers were programmed by the women noted below. Then, programming was treated as a more secretarial task, despite the act of programming itself being arguable more difficult and with higher stakes in this particular situation. These women were referred to colloquially as “refrigerator girls” and some thought them simply to be models placed there for scale.Conversely, the designers of the computers were treated more reverently. 

(Marlyn Wescoff [left] and Ruth Lichterman were two of the female programmers of ENIAC. PHOTO: CORBIS/GETTY IMAGES )


(Betty Jean Jennings (left) and Frances Bilas operating ENIAC's main control panel. PHOTO: U.S. ARMY/BETTMANN/GETTY IMAGES)

(J. Presper Eckert, John Mauchley, Betty Jean Jennings, and Herman Goldstine in front of ENIAC. PHOTO: U.S. ARMY/BETTMANN/GETTY IMAGES)

ARPANET, pre-internet

ARPANET, or the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network was started by the Department of Defense in the late 1960’s and ended in 1990 when what we know as the public-facing internet was created. Although used for largely academic purposes to remotely connect to distant computers, it was not utilized to its full potential. That being said it create the TCP/IP packet transfer protocol technology which is still the basis for how the internet works. You can see the map of the computer networks below as the network expanded across the US. Note also that the network was started by Department of Defense and most computers were localized to institutions of higher learning.

ARPANET logical map, March 1977

ARPANET 1969-1977.

Note that I ungraciously jumped forward in time and there were a few developments in computer technology that are of note. Astute viewers of the maps above will see computers like the PDP-10 and 11 mentioned. These were smaller than the ENIAC, but still huge computers. By this time, computers used tapes (reel-to-reel style) for storage, and although powered by transistors didn’t have a separate CPU as we do in more contemporary computers.

the PDP-10

While the PDP-10 had standardized control panel that dealt with the arcane functionality specific to it, there was no inherent graphical display; this was the “interface” for the user.

the PDP-10’s control panel

That being said, in the 1960’s when an earlier version the PDP-1 was developed, researchers at MIT developed the game Spacewar! as seen below. Note that this was a research product and not a commercial product. This used a CRT monitor (functionally closer to ones seen on games like Asteroids or the Vectrex than a commercial television), which was an optional accessory for the computer. This is one of the earliest examples of video games, before commercial products like Maganvox’s Odyssey.

Spacewar! on the PDP-1

The Magnavox Odyssey from the early 1970’s

Xerox PARC

Jumping slightly forward there were initiatives like Xerox PARC, which started in 1969. PARC was short for the Palo Alto Research Center. The products of their research were computers like the Xerox Star. This looks quite similar to a contemporary desktop computer.

The Xerox Star from 1981

While this computer cost ~$16,000 of money of the time, technology was sufficiently advanced such that a graphical display was possible. The UI for this operating system made many of the leaps forward that we still see in contemporary operating systems. This includes concepts like windowing, icons, and the desktop metaphor; the relationship between the operating system/inner workings of the computer and actual objects in the real world (folders, trashcans, paper).

examples of the GUI of the Xerox Star’s OS

While not commercially successful, people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates saw the Xerox Star and their latter operating systems featured quite similar interfaces.

ZX Spectrum and Personal Computing

While innovations like the Xerox Star were happening, personal computers were becoming more popular and affordable. You perhaps might be familiar with other hobbyist computers of the time like the TRS-80 or the Commodore VIC-20, while the ZX Spectrum was a popular one in the UK. The computer was able to plug into a commercial television, and only cost £125. It also used cassette tapes to record and transfer programs so sophisticated works like video games could be distributed rather cheaply. 
A ZX Spectrum (center bottom) plugged into a CRT monitor with a flight stick-style controller.

One of the Oliver twins who went on to form Code Masters pictured here, chillin’

Since games of this time were relatively simple and could be programmed by a precocious individual in several months (or weeks); a cottage industry where many young people got rich (and famous for their flagrant purchases like Lamborghinis) and formed companies, many of which exist today like Code Masters, Ocean Software, and Team 17. 

Kim Justice has a great channel where she often talks about her experiences with gaming in the UK.

Early internet 

As mentioned previously, the thing we still know as the internet flourished in the early nineties. You’d have to connect to it via a phone line, meaning that you would not be able to transfer as much data as quickly as on contemporary Wifi or ethernet. This would often use the same phone line people used for the telephone so you were not as constantly connected as today.

This lead to vastly less dynamic websites than what you experience today, the MSN example below would have been quite complex to make and make compatible with a variety of browers. There was also the issue that different browsers interpreted Javascript and CSS (used to make websites more interesting experiences) differently, which either meant experiences were simplified or more time and energy was spent to make uniform. That being said, an astute individual could pick up what would be considered web design and development much more easily.

screenshots of some early websites

The technology of the time was less advanced than today, but was becoming more standardized and reasonably affordable relative to their power. Companies like Dell pre-packaged computers making it easier for a less experienced or specialized person to start using; see the “dude you’re getting a Dell” commercial; clearly marketed towards parents getting computers for their kids going to college.

An average beige computer from the late 1990’s or early 2000’s

Flash & Content Creation

As personal computers became more powerful, so did the tools. Tools you may be familiar with like Photoshop and Flash (now Animate) were commercial (or illicitly) available.

Flash, a program which had powerful frame-by-frame and keyframe (what the program calls “tweens”) animation tools, also had an interactive coding engine which could produce powerful games that could be embedded into websites and were popular on websites like Newgrounds.

A more palpable internet culture was emerging with animations like Peanut Butter Jelly Time and Badgers becoming popular. 

Slightly later, video compression became more powerful and could be displayed relatively fast through Flash. This lead to more robust user generated video content on websites like YouTube, Google Video and then-competing services like Blip. 

As content like Muffins became popular, YouTube helped content creators by sharing the ad revenue (not dissimilar to what they had done with Google Ads which were popular on blogs at the time). 

This made it possible for a not technically inclined individual to make and share their content with their fans and create a living from it. 

iOS and“walled gardens”

The iPhone came out in 2007, and while many phones of were sophisticated (the Blackberry was quite popular at the time), the iPhone incorporated more devices and cutting edge UI research into their touchscreen (pinching and zooming for example). iOS also had an app store that users would have to submit their apps to.

While this helped maintained the quality of the apps, one of the effects of this was the eventual “death” of Flash (as a technology not as a program; it is still used pretty actively for animation).

Steve Jobs penned a famous letter about not supporting Flash on the iPhone. While there were legitimate reasons to do this, security being one of them, this would mean, that many games would not be available on the iPhone’s browser and would have to be “ported” to iOS, and many rich experiences were left unarchived.

Also note that a device as powerful, if not more powerful, than many personal computers was now able to be housed in a device that could fit in your pocket. 

User-generated content 

To be honest, I didn’t want to end on the iPhone and wanted to highlight a few content creators speaking on topics related to what is discussed here.

This is a pretty interesting vid by Hank Green. While the title is a little clickbait-y, the content is good and convers the history of YouTube content creation and monetization andhow TikTok does things differently and potentially suck-ily.

This is F.D. Signifier’s video on “breadtube” (the term for leftist YouTubers). It pretty thoroughly covers the history of what he refers to as “Angry White Guy” content that lead to the popularity of both far right and far left content on the platform as well as the alienation that many black creators feel and how the algorithm plays a role in this. I highly recommend his channel.