Must-Watch Documentaries About The Birth of Computers & The Internet

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birth of computersInternet banking, online shopping, social networking….they’re all extremely popular uses for computers and mobile devices. But have you ever sat down at your computer, and spent a few moments trying to work out how we got here? It seems that in the space of 15 years or so we’ve moved through a digital revolution that was completely unheralded.

Of course, this isn’t the case. While computers and the Internet have moved into the public consciousness since the late 1990’s, their importance wasn’t quite appreciated until recently.

But the computer revolution that started in the 1960’s was well into its stride when the following excellent documentaries were broadcast in the 1980’s and 1990’s. These must-watch films explain everything you need to know about the birth of computing and the development of the Internet.

The Computer Program

You never forget your first computer. Back in 1982 I became the thrilled owner of a Commodore 64. An expensive present for a six year old, this machine has been an echo in the back of my mind ever since. I even made my dad sign up to a computer club!

Also echoing in the back of my mind is The Computer Program, a ten-part series (which spawned two follow-ups, Making the Most of the Micro in 1983 and Micro Live which ran from 1984 until 1987) in which the possibilities of owning a home computer was outlined and explained to viewers. BASIC was offered as tutorials, and demonstration machines used were the BBC’s own range of Acorn computers.

This series, although dated, is a fascinating glimpse into the past, demonstrating not only how long computers have been involved in our everyday lives, but also how common they were back in 1982.

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Triumph Of The Nerds & Nerds 2.0.1: A Brief History Of The Internet

I first discovered the work of Robert X. Cringely (that’s a pen name, of course, folks) during my first year of university. Accidental Empires was a fantastic read – it’s just a shame that I wasn’t able to keep a copy of the accompanying documentary, Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires.

Until now, that is.

Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires (1996) tells the story of famous nerds like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, has plenty of references to much loved early computing milestones and is genuinely a pleasure to watch.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CFL9IyJ_qHk

Also available to view on YouTube is Nerds 2.0.1: A Brief History of the Internet (1998), a sequel to the first film which picks up the story at the beginning of the brave new age of the World Wide Web, largely from a business point of view.

If you’ve wanted to know more about the origins of the web, HTML, networking and bulletin boards, this is the film for you. Featuring interviews with Doug Englebart, Tim Berners-Lee and Steve Ballmer among many others, this is the perfect companion piece to Triumph of the Nerds.

A book of this documentary also exists, written by director Stephen Segaller.

Douglas Adams’ Hyperland

If Triumph of the Nerds and Nerds 2.0.1 doesn’t get you excited about just how far we’ve come since the 1990s, Hyperland will blow your mind. While Nerds 2.0.1 covers much of the same era, Hyperland focuses more on the theory of linked things, hypertext and virtual worlds of data.

Narrated by Douglas Adams (yes, he of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) with regular interruptions and explanations from Tom Baker (that’s the scarf-wearing fourth Doctor Who to you), this is a fascinatingly predictive look at how we use the Internet – broadcast in 1990!

Below is the very first part of the show – you’ll find the subsequent instalments on YouTube.

Revolution OS

Have you ever witnessed a revolution? Could you have even lived through one – and not known about it?

If you’re a fan of Linux and the open source movement, then the answer is surely “yes”. Revolution OS (2001) covers the history of GNU/Linux from its beginnings to the turn of the century and features chats with the guys who matter, such as Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds.

Mixing on-screen stats with interviews and sinister music whenever Microsoft is mentioned, Revolution OS is enthralling entertainment for any fan of computing, regardless of their operating system philosophy.

Other Notable Documentaries You Shouldn’t Miss

While we’ve embedded the top choices in this article, you won’t be able to enjoy the following two here on MakeUseOf. Instead, you’ll have to find them via their individual links and download them.

Steal This Film is a documentary about not about piracy, but about the way in which distribution of entertainment media has changed. Well worth watching, you can get your copy via the torrent network from the film’s makers via http://www.stealthisfilm.com/Part2/download.php.

Meanwhile, Hackers 95 will give you an insight into the beginnings of hacking and the hacktivist movement, and can be accessed by visiting http://archive.org/details/Hackers.95.Documentary.

Finally: The Mother of All Demos

No collection of videos about the history of computing and the Internet can be complete without this, an amazing piece of film running to 100 minutes in which the great Douglas Engelbart demonstrates a mouse and keyboard driven GUI.

In 1968.

Wait, 1968?!

Yes, 1968. What you are about to see is an amazing prediction of how we use computers now, 45 years later. It’s jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring and slightly spooky in equal measure – not to mention utterly awesome.

Conclusion

Whether you’ve got a few minutes to spare or a whole evening, these films are well worth watching. I have a particular soft spot for Accidental Empires and Hyperland (not to mention Doug Engelbart’s amazing demo), but there are great points to all of these extremely insightful and informative documentaries.

As shown here, we are indeed reaping the benefits of many years of research, development and amazing pioneering, so let’s understand it, appreciate it – and most importantly, share it!

Please let us know via the comments section if you have any additional documentary films that we can add to this list.

Image Credit: Beao

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