Outer Space and the Home/Personal Computer

The history of the personal computer revolution has several myths. Some of them focus on individual geniuses (hackers, nerds, or hippies), others on single machines (ALTAIR 8800, Apple II). Those myths tend to ignore not only the role of the USA government in helping to set up the sociotechnical infrastructure for the development of computing, but also the role of INTEL corporation in the fabrication of microprocessors (at California’s Silicon Valley), and the existence of several small companies that manufactured and distributed a variety of microcomputer kits and electronics. As with many other “revolutions” it is important to take a look at the beginnings in order to find clues about how they encountered the appropriate conditions for unfolding. In particular, I am interested in understanding the early meanings that were attached to the home/personal computer during the second half of the 1970s. What was the computer useful for? Why people should learn to use a computer? How did the home/personal computer enter the American Popular imagination?

In order to answer some of these questions, I decided to take a look at some of the magazines that appeared in the USA during this period of time. They targeted an audience of early home computer users, consumers of chips, peripherals, monitors, microcomputers, cassettes, printers, video games, software, and a variety of electronics that could be plugged into DIY systems. After reviewing issues of BYTE magazine (from 1975 to1978) and Creative Computing (from 1979 to1980), I was struck by how the imagery of many of the covers, articles, and advertisements for all kinds of products, continuously made reference to notions of outer space, brains, robots, and alice in wonderland. These images seemed to shape a kind of utopian discourse that was a blend of science, fantasy, and fiction.

The cover of BYTE magazine (September 1976) celebrating the centennial of American independence, is a good example of the kind of popular imagination that was being built around the home/personal computer. The cover shows a democratic gathering, a public rally with people in red and blue clothing. There are signs that say “2 COMPUTERS IN EVERY HOME,” “STAMP OUT CYBER-CRUD!,” and “COMPUTER POWER,” phrases that are attached to the claims that Ted Nelson made in his book Computer Lib (distributed by BYTE). There is actually a man in the middle of the gathering with the iconic image of Nelson’s book (the closed hand), and next to him, there is a kid. Closer, there is also Mr. Spok, standing still, and Captain Kirk holding a mobile device (a communicator). On the top of the cover, part of the Enterprise starship appears cruising the sky.

The Enterprise, appears repetitively across different advertisements in several issues of both magazines. Regardless they adds are announcing software, monitors, chips, videogames, or a conference, the image of the ship is constantly instantiated. The voyages of the Enterprise mix with the different consumer products and events that the computer users were interested. Those journeys, as infamously stated in the Star Trek Original Series have the mission of “exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilizations, to boldly going where no man has gone before.”

The december 1977 issue of BYTE has a curious article on the computers of the Enterprise. The authors of the article argue against the lack of references to the physical configuration of the computers. Using the information they have available from the television show they speculate on the possible hardware and software characteristics of the Enterprise computers. Besides showing the image of the starship over a red planet, the article also feature Captain Kirk holding and issue of BYTE while science officer Mr. Spok is manipulating the buttons of a computer panel.

Outer space and its powerful imaginative potential is not only associated with characters and the fictional universe of Star Trek, there are also several illustrations, graphics, and photographs that display stars, space invaders, and astronauts. In the Creative Computing issue of 1979, there is a micro computer monitor that displays the image of the Hangman game in color. The monitor is reflected on the helmet of an astronaut that seems to be on the moon.

Exploring the early issues BYTE and Creative Computing magazines reveals a clues about of how early home/personal computer users and hobbyists wanted to see themselves and the importance of American popular culture in helping people imagining the uses of the new machine. It seems that during this period of time there is an ambiguity between the uses of home/personal computers for education, entertainment, and business. However, there is a systematic reference to outer space that seems to place the meaning of the home/personal computer in the final frontier.

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