13 computers that changed the world

This year marks the 70th birthday of Colossus, one of the most important machines in the history of IT. As well as being the world’s first “electronic” computer, it also played a pivotal role in helping to end World War II by deciphering coded German military messages.

Colossus has achieved something of a cult status among computer nerds and historians alike, but could you name the world’s first laptop, tablet or games console? Or even the world’s first web server or the first computer with a mouse-driven graphical user interface?

Davey Winder, PC Pro’s contributing editor and collector of vintage computers, uncovers the 13 most important pieces of computing hardware in history.

1944: Colossus


Although Charles Babbage had envisaged a programmable computer 100 years earlier, it was in 1944 that the first fully programmable and electronic digital computer was realised in the shape of the aptly named Colossus.

Using vacuum tubes to perform Boolean operations, and requiring the physical manipulation of telephone jack plugs, cords and switches
to change wiring in order to program it for new tasks, Colossus was designed by Tommy Flowers and influenced by Alan Turing’s crypto-analysis probability theories.

In all, there were ten Colossus computers built, each occupying a large room and consisting of eight racks more than 2.3m in height, arranged in two bays that were 5.5m in length. A fully functional replica was completed in 2007 and can now be seen at The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park.

1972: Magnavox Odyssey

Magnavox Odyssey

Think video-gaming consoles and the names that spring to mind include Atari, Nintendo, Sega, Sony and Microsoft. However, none of these were responsible for kick-starting the home video-gaming revolution; that milestone belongs to the Magnavox Odyssey.

Developed by Ralph Baer – who later designed the Simon game – and released in 1972 (pre-dating Atari consoles by a few years), the Odyssey sold over 300,000 units before it was discontinued in 1975.

Designed for use with a TV, the games took the form of cartridges and required a plastic overlay to be taped to the screen. Tennis, football, hockey and roulette were all played by manipulating light using rudimentary controllers.

A shooting gallery game introduced the world’s first gun controller in the form of a full-sized, pump-action shotgun, which detected light as a target.

It may sound basic when compared with today’s consoles, but Atari was found guilty of patent infringement when it released its Pong game because it so closely resembled the Odyssey tennis game. Without the Odyssey, we wouldn’t see the likes of the Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto franchises today.

1973: Xerox Alto

Xerox Alto

Most computer historians agree that the Xerox Alto was the first to combine a desktop graphical user interface (GUI) and Douglas Engelbart’s mouse input device in a meaningful way. Developed at Xerox PARC, the Alto was never commercially released, although thousands were built for use within Xerox facilities and by universities.

It included a monochrome bit-mapped VDU, and came with a three-button mouse, a visual UI and 2.5MB of removable data storage.

The Alto pushed the GUI input concept into the output too, being the first to enable true wysiwyg printing, and was designed to work with the laser printers Xerox was developing at the time.

The Alto changed the way users interacted with the computer and influenced the design of personal computing hardware, such as the Apple Macintosh, that followed.

1975: MITS Altair 8800

Altair 8800

The Altair 8800 makes it onto our list on two counts: it was one of the first affordable home computer kits to hit the market; and it inspired future computing engineers and designers who went on to change the face
of computing as we know it.

Costing less than $400 (£250) at the time, the Altair was offered as a kit based on an eight-bit Intel 8080 CPU and a 256-byte memory. The display was nothing more than front-panel LEDs, and there was no keyboard either; input was via a collection of toggle switches.

However, the open 100-line computer bus went on to become the de facto standard S-100 bus, and the first programming language written for the device, Altair BASIC, was created by none other than Paul Allen and Bill Gates, who shortly went on to form Microsoft.

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