Overview

Tech time capsule

Read time 11min 50sec

Great scientific discoveries have occurred in some unconventional locations - Archimedes in his bathtub, Franklin flying a kite in a thunderstorm... But if you were to describe the 'birthplaces' of modern technology, where would you begin? Has the world given enough attention to documenting the technological discoveries that are shaping our present reality, and that of generations to come?

Traditionally, attempts to preserve humankind's origins have focused on the anthropological and artistic - humans' social, political and creative endeavours. Museums and heritage sites allow people to glimpse something physical of the times and places that have shaped our collective history. But as technology becomes increasingly interwoven into every aspect of daily life, changing not only our abilities but society itself, how is its role and development being catalogued? With this in mind, we look at a few of information technology's 'heritage sites', and how these serve not only as meaningful locations in computing history, but form part of the much larger narrative of human history.

Watson Scientific Computing Laboratory

International Business Machines (IBM) was in its heyday at the beginning of the 20th Century, finding much success in the business world thanks to its tabulators and punch card technology. With chairman and CEO Thomas J Watson Snr's decision to open a lab devoted to pure science, IBM also became a leader in scientific and computing discoveries, many of which had major impacts for both industry and broader society. The Watson Scientific Computing Lab was opened at Columbia University in 1945, and facilitated research in a range of disciplines, from astronomy to chemistry to economics. It was home to a host of top scientific minds, including Nobel Prize winners Harry Markowitz (1990, Economics) and Leo Esaki (1973, Physics).

The work done at the centre between 1960 and 1984 was named an IEEE Milestone in 2009, as resident researchers produced advances that transformed not only scientific and computing fields but the world at large. These innovations include dynamic random access memory (DRAM), used worldwide in virtually all modern computers; field effect transistor scaling laws, which led to high-speed transistors widely used in wireless telecommunications; amorphous magnetic materials, which formed the basis of optical storage technology; and thin-film magnetic recording heads, bringing vast improvements in storage technology that eventually enabled rapid data access and storage on the Internet. The labs also saw the development of Reduced Instruction Set Computer (RISC) architecture, the implementation of which significantly increased the speed and efficiency of computers.

IBM's research arm has been formalised into its own organisation, IBM Research, and is now a major corporate scientific institution with 3 000 professionals in nine laboratories worldwide.

HP garage

The idea of the garage tech start-up seems to belong in the 80s and 90s, but one of the top tech companies was founded in just this way all the way back in 1939. Bill Hewlett and David Packard formed what would become one of the world's largest computer companies in a garage in Palo Alto, California, with start-up capital of just $538. The fledgling company's first product, built in the garage, was an audio oscillator (an electronic instrument used by sound engineers), initially known as the Model 200A. Walt Disney Studios bought eight of these oscillators while working on a sound system for the movie Fantasia, and the purchase got HP a name in the film industry. From its humble beginnings (paint was baked onto early instrument panels in the Packards' kitchen oven, and the sequence of the duo's names decided by a coin toss) the company went on to become a global leader in printing, imaging and computing technologies, active in 170 countries worldwide. While HP outgrew its initial venue within a year, the garage remained an important part of corporate heritage. In 1984, HP applied for historic landmark status to ensure it would be preserved at its original location, and it was later dedicated as a state historic landmark and the “Birthplace of Silicon Valley”. In September 2004, HP announced plans to preserve the garage, and set to work transforming the house, shed and garage back into what it would have looked like in 1939. While the HP garage is not open for public tours, visitors may view and photograph the landmark from the sidewalk.

Moore School of Electrical Engineering

The school and its scientists, based at the University of Pennsylvania, were at the centre of the computing revolution during and after the Second World War. It was home to the first general-purpose digital electronic computer, the ENIAC, built between 1943 and 1946; and work on ENIAC's successor the EDVAC led to the stored program concept used in all modern computers. The school also became famous for its pioneering computer course, later known as the 'Moore School Lectures'. Considered the first academic computer science course, it led to an explosion of interest in computing both nationally and globally, and the school employed some of the top minds in this field at the time. These included John Mauchly and J Presper Eckert, who later founded the first computer company and produced the UNIVAC computer; John von Neumann, one of the great mathematicians of his era; and Stan Frankel and Nicholas Metropolis, of the Manhattan Project. Today, the school no longer exists as a separate entity, although the structure itself remains and is known on campus as the Moore School Building.

Bell Labs

The R&D subsidiary of Alcatel-Lucent, and previously the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T), Bell Labs has been at the centre of a remarkable list of innovations, from the transistor to laser technology to the cellular communications network. Formally founded in 1925, through an amalgamation of various engineering departments within AT&T, Bell Labs became home to thousands of engineers and scientists working on groundbreaking advances at its New Jersey headquarters. Early inventions include the fax machine, the first digital binary computer, stereo sound and the first electronic speech synthesizer. Its scientific and computing discoveries continued throughout the 20th Century, with breakthroughs in telecommunications driving the kinds of revenues that enabled the Labs to support 15 000 researchers at its peak. In 1946, it introduced the first commercial mobile telephone service, with each caller needing to use a set of equipment that weighed nearly 40kg. The following year, one of the most important events in computing history took place when Bell Lab scientists John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley invented the transistor. The team was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1956. Bell Labs would go on to produce a dozen more Nobel Prize winners.

The most exhilarating feelings came from dreaming, proving and making things that had never been done before.

Robert S Bauer

Other notable inventions include the silicon solar cell; transatlantic telephone cables and later fibre-optic cables; laser technology, digitised and synthesised music; text-to-speech synthesis; charge coupled devices (CCD) used in digital cameras, camcorders, high-definition TV, security monitoring, medical equipment, video conferencing and surveillance; the first communication satellites, the first commercial cellular communications system, digital cellular telephone technology - to mention but a few (see a more detailed rundown here).

Apart from major advances in communications technology, the Labs researchers also made one of the biggest discoveries about the origins of the universe and life on earth astronomy. In 1965, Arno Penzias and Bob Wilson discovered cosmic background radiation that provided evidence for the Big Bang theory, and won a Nobel Prize for their work in 1978. Bell Labs was also where the UNIX operating system was developed - the first OS designed to run on computers of all sizes, making open systems possible. This was later followed by the C and C++ programming languages. While the Labs were a hotbed for scientific innovation, they also became a model for how organisations could create stimulating environments that encourage the cross-fertilisation of ideas. It was a hive of creative thinking and multidisciplinary research, with many anecdotes of 'accidental' discoveries (the Big Bang scientists initially thought the radio noise they were hearing was created by pigeons) and eccentric geniuses (Claude Shannon, who developed information theory foundational for much of the digital world, was known for riding his unicycle around the corridors).

Bell Labs still exists today, doing R&D for Alcatel-Lucent, but has diminished considerably in size, scope and influence.

Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre

Another of the great research institutions of the 20th Century, the Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC) attracted top computer scientists and produced many groundbreaking inventions, becoming one of the most successful corporate research labs of its time. Opened in 1970, in Palo Alto, California, it was originally intended as a hub for developing new technologies and ideas that would lead to future products, with a charter to create the “office of the future”. However, by giving researchers a broad mandate, freedom to experiment, and paying them well, Xerox found the centre delivered much more (although it failed to capitalise on many inventions). Some of the breakthrough technologies developed there include the graphical user interface, Ethernet, the laser printer, solid-state lasers, natural language processing and object-oriented programming - the latter enabling software programs to be improved without having to be rewritten. The combination of highly talented researchers, generous funding and a stimulating, creative environment put PARC at the forefront of the IT revolution, which was at an inflection point during the time. One researcher, who worked there for 30 years, said in a recent Computerworld interview that: “The innovation was palpable, with each of us taking advantage of the latest experimental capabilities developed by others. The most exhilarating feelings came from dreaming, proving and making things that had never been done before.”

But for all the ingenuity of its band of researchers, Xerox failed to realise the potential of many of PARC's greatest inventions, allowing other companies to cash in on its discoveries. One of these companies was Apple, which, following a visit by Steve Jobs to PARC in 1979, incorporated the mouse, window and menu concepts into the Apple Mac. Another was 3Com, the company Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe founded after leaving PARC, as well as Adobe, which PARC researchers Charles Geschke and John Warnock created after failing to convince Xerox management of the value of their graphics and printing language. Today, PARC is an independent subsidiary of Xerox, with about 170 resident scientists and engineers.

Apple garage

With the recent announcement that Apple is now the most valuable company in the world, with a market cap of $623 billion, it is hard to imagine that it all began in a garage in Los Altos, California, 30-odd years ago. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak set up the Apple Computer company in 1976, with the release of Apple 1, the first 50 of which were built in a workshop in Jobs' parents' garage. They incorporated Apple Computer in January 1977, and the Apple II was announced in April the same year, setting a new standard for personal computers. With the success of the Apple II, the company could sign on more employees and work on new products, including the Apple Lisa, released in 1983. By the end of 1980, Jobs was a millionaire, and while he would lose and regain leadership of Apple in years to come, the company that emerged from those early days makes the Los Altos garage an enduring monument in computing history.

Google garage

In another rags to riches tech story, search engine pioneers Larry Page and Sergey Brin set up shop in the garage of Susan Wojcicki, who would later become Google's VP of product management, in September 1998, a year after giving their 'BackRub' search engine the new name of Google. Situated at 232 Santa Margarita, Menlo Park, the garage became like a second home for Page and Brin, then just 25, while they worked on their page ranking system. When the duo first moved into the garage, they had just incorporated Google and signed on their first investor - Andy Bechtolsheim - who signed a cheque for $100 000. In just over a decade, the company has grown to a market value of around $200 billion, expanded into several other Web business sectors, and spawned its own verb. Although the Google garage isn't considered a historic site yet, it has already turned into a tourist attraction, and something of a shrine for tech enthusiasts.

Zuckerberg's dorm room

Mark Zuckerberg's Harvard dorm room served as the site for one of the most significant events in the social technology space, as the place where the 19-year-old student created Facebook in 2004. Growing from an exclusively Harvard-based network to almost a billion users worldwide in 2012, the social network has created a cultural shift in the way people interact, and made Zuckerberg one of the 100 wealthiest and most influential people in the world. The venue has been immortalised in a 2010 film account of Zuckerberg's creation of Facebook, The Social Network, although it remains to be seen whether the physical room itself will receive any honorary status.

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