Chapter 5

Pop Culture

This essay is a review of:

Computer: A History of the Information Machine

by Martin Campbell-Kelly

Getting Personal
by Orion Anderson

Today, the computer is a necessity as it appears in every facet of life. This, however, has not always been the case. Before the 1980s computers were employed mostly by big corporations and the wealthy, but “during the second half of the 1980s, the joys of ‘surfing the net’ began to excite the interest of people beyond the professional computer-using communities.”1 In Martin Campbell-Kelly’s Computer: A History of the Information Machine, the computer is explained through its various evolutionary stages along with an extensive analysis on the success of the personal computer. The 1980s was a time of software and hardware innovation that turned the personal computer into a crucial part of American life.

Campbell-Kelly begins his book by explaining the idea of “human computers”. He documents the need for data processing was present long before the introduction of the first computers. Data processing in the 19th century was often conducted by “data processing organizations” which were essentially large numbers of people sitting in a room and carrying out various calculations in order to accomplish a larger task. These tasks included calculating population statistics for the Federal Census Bureau and other large organizations. He then goes into detail explaining that this method of human computing was extremely inefficient and provides background information on Herman Hollerith, who had the idea to develop a mechanical system for data processing. His card punching company, which eventually becomes IBM (International Business Machines), created a basis for mechanical computing. Campbell-Kelly refers back to Hollerith throughout the book as “one of the seminal nineteenth-century figures in the development of information processing.”2

The year 1946 marked the completion of the first fully automatic computing machine developed at Harvard University. Campbell-Kelly discusses various innovations that led to the development of the personal computer and skepticism of the potential popularity of the computer by business machine corporations of the 1950s, Before IBM was a computer company, they were a “business machine company” that specialized in card punching machines. In 1949, Thomas J. Watson Sr., the President of IBM, claimed that “there was a market for no more than about a dozen computers and that IBM had no place in that business.”3 Campbell-Kelly uses this ironic claim to emphasize the widespread skepticism of the success of computer industry. He also explains throughout the book, that before the introduction of PCs, computers were extremely expensive and could only be afforded by the rich, or large corporations. This highlights the level of involvement the common home had with computers. Campbell-Kelly elaborates on how large business machine companies had often tried to get into the personal computer industry but had failed miserably after the year 1986; it was too difficult to compete with superpowers such as IBM and Steve Job’s Apple. He uses the second half of the book to discuss the first major “real-time” computer network project known as the SABRE airline reservation system.

The book goes into depth about various tech startup companies in the 80s including Microsoft and Apple. Campbell-Kelly explains that the microprocessing industry, shaped in the second half of the twentieth-century by Intel, played a large role in the development of personal computers. Microprocessors allowed for personal computers to not only be cheaper than their mainframe counterparts but also more compact. The average computer before 1975 was upwards of $25,000 and had the equivalent memory of a single digital photo. Campbell-Bell briefly explains Moore’s Law or the prediction that computer processing speed would double every year. He notes that microprocessors were sold for about $1000 dollars in the early 1980’s and were “first marketed as ‘a microprogrammable computer on a chip.’”4. The book also goes into depth explaining the strong need for personal computers in the business world. Businesses saw the potential for personal computers to perform three major tasks that made them a necessity in the workplace: data processing, spreadsheet creation, and the data base. Campbell-Bell emphasized throughout later chapters that the computer hobbyists of the 1980s who helped make personal computers possible had no idea that they would have such a substantial impact on businesses. Strong demand from business and consumer home led computer hobbyists to develop their own versions of personal computers. Personal computer companies such as Apple and Microsoft were both started in garages by computer hobbyists. Campbell-Kelly explains that both Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, and Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, were part of the Computer Liberation movement which attempted to make computers available to everyone. The computer liberation movement, according to Campbell-Kelly, has strong ties to the success and advancement of the personal computer revolution of the 1980s.

The combination of hardware and software development in the 1980s made the creation of personal computers possible. However, Campbell-Kelly emphasizes that software development in the ‘80s lagged far behind hardware development. He explains that, in 1986,  “The PC GUI (Graphic User Interface) appeared to be technologically unsupportable on the existing generation of IBM-compatible hardware.”5 , essentially calling for the development of an entirely new operating system for Microsoft. He uses this with his explanation of how easy it was to enter the personal computer industry in the ‘80s to show that software development was the work of numerous programmers looking to remedy this dilemma as opposed to a single organization. The last chapter of the book is used to explain the development of the internet and computer networking systems. The book breaks away from its chronological order to provide a complete and detailed history, then in its infancy, of the rapid growth of email and the Internet. Campbell-Kelly agrees that email was the single most transformative effect of the internet.  The book concludes with the idea that, by the late 1980s most computer users in the United States had access to the internet and both social and economic reasons drove the computerized world of today’s society.

Throughout the entire book, the author refers back to the 1980s as a time when consumer demand for the personal computer was met by technological innovation driven by highly competitive tech startup companies. Campbell-Kelly breaks down the development of personal computers into two separate phases. The “Gold Rush Era”, he explains, “lasted from about 1975 to 1982.. [when] barriers to entry were extremely low and there were several thousand new entrants, almost all of which were undercapitalized two or three-person start-ups.”6 The second era was the “Period of Consolidation” that lasted from 1983 to about 1989 in which, “Many of the early firms were shaken out, new entrants required heavy inputs of venture capital, and a small number of firms emerged as global players.”7 Computer hobbyists were the driving force behind most of the several thousand new entrants to the personal computer industry during the “Gold Rush Era”. The book attributes the success of the personal computer industry in the 1980s to two main factors: strong demand from businesses looking to use personal computers as modern day business machines and strong demand from “computer hobbyists” looking to purchase personal computers for personal use. These strong demands were met by numerous tech startups looking to “hit it rich” in the computer industry.

The author Martin Campbell-Kelly is currently a Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at the University of Warwick in England. He received his Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of Sunderland in 1980. Campbell-Kelly lived through the personal computer revolution of the 1980s and experienced its rapid development first-hand. Computer: A History of the Information Machine was originally published in 1996 long after the beginning of the personal computer. By this time personal computers were commonplace and allowed Campbell-Kelly to effectively break down the development of personal computers into two separate eras. Computer: A History of the Information Machine is written as a historical review and focusses heavily on the monumental influence of IBM on the computer industry as a whole.

Michael S. Mahoney, a Professor of Science at Princeton University, deemed this book “highly readable”. Mahoney explains that although Campbell-Kelly studied and lived in the U.K. “[Computer: A History of the Information Machine] is exclusively an American story”8 In short, Mahoney believes that Computer: A History of the Information Machine is accurate and judicious in its purpose, even going so far as to say it sets the standard for computer history as a whole. Robert W. Seidel, a History of Science researcher from University of California at Berkeley, believes otherwise, claiming that Campbell-Kelly’s book “goes beyond [the history] adding insights that can arise only from a synthetic view of the origins, development, and use of the computer.”9 He challenges Campbell-Kelly’s strong IBM bias arguing that IBM is not the superior American tech company. He does, however, agree that Computer: A History of the Information Machine provides an easy to read and comprehensive history of the computer industry. Even with Seidel’s negative view on this book, both reviewers can agree that a comprehensive history of the computer industry is accurately laid out.

Computer: A History of the Information Machine is well-written book providing both a comprehensive history of the computer industry and detailed analysis of the reasoning behind the success of the PCs. Campbell-Kelly effectively creates connections between the development of the first mechanical automatic computing machines and the personal computers seen in today’s society. Throughout the book, Campbell-Kelly strongly emphasizes his opinion of computing that “computing was not performed for its own sake, but always as a means to an end.”10 He attributes the success of personal computers to this theory. Computer: A History of the Information Machine does more than successfully carry out its task of providing an accurate history of computing as a whole; it also provides substantial analysis behind the reasons for success in the personal computing industry.

Although the 1980s were historically a time of conservatism, Campbell-Kelly illustrates that the personal computer industry followed a more empowering agenda. The personal computer industry was made up of several corporations all playing a role in the development of the PC. No one company dominated, as companies needed to work together to create compatible software and hardware. Campbell-Kelly supports this claim of liberalism throughout the book as he explains that when trying to enter the personal computer industry in the early 80s “barriers to entry were extremely low.”11 Most computer companies were not formed on the basis of financial gain but instead as a result of hobbyism or research. Personal computers also helped to shape liberal thought as they created a generation with wider access to world events in real time essentially encouraging progressive social change. The conservative agenda of the new right in the 1980s strongly supported “trickle down theory”, or reduced taxes and government spending. However, the computer industry as a whole can be seen throughout the decades as following a liberal agenda as it embraces ideas and projects from the ground up.

Campbell-Kelly seems to strongly support the idea of the 1980s being a successful decade of social and economic progressivism. The rise of the personal computer affected the way people connected with each other in so many ways. It created a platform in which people could more easily access things such as email and the internet. Economic progressivism was also a result of the rise of the personal computer in the 1980s as “Three generic applications enabled the personal computer to become an effective business machine: the spreadsheet, the word processor, and the database.”12 Personal computers allowed businesses to become much more efficient therefore increasing their financial gain making the 1980 personal computer revolution a time of not only social progressivism but also economic progressivism.

Computer: A History of the Information Machine provides a substantial amount of information regarding the history of computers as a whole along with a comprehensive analysis on how various hardware and software innovations led to the development of the first personal computer. Campbell-Kelly has truly outdone himself in the creation of this book as it really sets the standard for the history of the personal computer in the 1980s and computing as a whole.


1. Campbell-Kelly, Martin. Computer: A History of the Information Machine. Boulder: 2004. 298.

2. Campbell-Kelly, Martin. 16.

3. Campbell-Kelly, Martin. 93.

4. Campbell-Kelly, Martin. 210.

5. Campbell-Kelly. Martin. 243.

6. Campbell-Kelly. Martin. 232.

7. Campbell-Kelly. Martin. 232.

8. Mahoney, Michael S. “Review of Computer: A History of the Information Machine.” Princeton University. Princeton Press, 1998. Web. 22 May 2016.

9. Seidel, Robert W. “Project MUSE - Computer: A History of the Information Machine (review).” Project MUSE - Computer: A History of the Information Machine (review). Project Muse, 1998. Web. 22 May 2016.

10. Campbell-Kelly, Martin. 70.

11. Campbell-Kelly, Martin. 232.

12. Campbell-Kelly. Martin. 223