The Computer Chronicles was an American television series that aired on the country’s public broadcasting network PBS from 1981 until 2002. More than 20 years of technological advancement in consumer electronics was recorded, discussed and now, thanks to the Internet Archive has been preserved indefinitely for your enjoyment.
Whether you lived through this era of change, remember the original programming or have never heard of The Computer Chronicles before, there’s a good chance you’ll get a kick out of the 500+ episodes found on the Archive. I’ve picked out a few of my favorites, featuring some classic hardware and software examples from what many regard as the “golden age” of home computing.
1985: The Macintosh Computer
Before standardized consumer-friendly systems and the stability afforded by the widespread adoption of DOS and eventually Windows, the computer market was anyone’s for the taking. When new machines arrived on the scene, they were treated with excitement and trepidation because in 1985 the unrealized potential in the market market was huge.
This episode of The Computer Chronicles originally broadcast in 1985 takes a look at the Macintosh computer for the first time, and the disruption it was set to make with its “high resolution graphics”.
1995: Windows 95
Windows 95 represented a monumental leap forward in home computing. Microsoft truly outdid themselves, and for all the blue screens and viruses, most of us still look back and see Windows 95 in a positive light. Many readers will remember their first PCs running Windows 95, and if that includes you this episode is not just recommended viewing, it’s essential.
In this episode from the year of release we see early versions of Microsoft Office for Windows 95 in an example of true multitasking. In 1995 running early versions of Excel and Word at the same time was one of the most exciting things you could do with a computer.
1992: MIDI Music
MIDI might be the one computer interface that’s changed the least since its inception, and despite some proprietary implementations of the system most of the keyboards and input devices manufactured when this episode aired in 1992 would still work with a modern PC of today. In fact, many might even work with your iPad.
Musicians have had decades to get used to MIDI, but in this video it’s still a relatively new technology. The digitization of music revolutionized the way many producers were creating music and gave birth to a new wave of producers and sounds.
1985: Modems & Bulletin Boards
The Internet was considered “new” in the early 90s, but in the preceding decade people were already using the telephone lines to talk to each other from across the globe using bulletin board systems and simple modems. Bulletin board systems, abbreviated to BBSs, were early examples of forums or newsgroups where users could connect, download and post messages at startlingly slow speeds.
It’s difficult to imagine just how exciting this technology was in the early 80s, but thanks to The Computer Chronicles we can see what kind of waves it was making at the time. One example sees a San Francisco child care facility installing a bulletin board system to better connect with those who depend on the service – something many of us have taken for granted for years through the Web and social media.
1985: Japanese Computers
Japan has a history of doing its own thing, particularly when it comes to technology. Just like Japan’s mobile phone market in the 2000s was virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the world, in the mid 80s the far east computer market also differed considerably.
As if 4:3 NTSC-tinged footage of Akihabara in the mid-80s isn’t enough to get you to click play on the video above, this episode was shot exclusively in Japan and looks at some rather obscure bits of tech that never made it.
1986: Electronic Mail
In 1986, email was still known as electronic mail – which goes some way toward explaining how widespread it had become. This episode of The Computer Chronicles gave many their first glimpse of the future – replacing a courier, mailman or fax with a message on a computer screen.
Highlights include Apple’s original InBox mail application and Lotus Express for IBM compatibles, as well as a rather drawn-out conversation about the ability to send any files you would like – for free!
1997: CES 1997
The Consumer Electronics Show, also known as CES, is held once a year to usher in a new generation of technology. In 1997, Intel’s MMX Pentium processors were the acronym of the show but DVDs were also still making a splash after being the star product the previous year.
In addition to old Pentiums and optical media, the 56K modem was making a splash in 1997, as were the original smart TVs which included very basic web browsers. Pay attention to all the products you see here that never made it, as with most trade show innovations much of this technology was either too refined to be affordable and useful or cast by the wayside.
Nearly every single episode of The Computer Chronicles has been made available on the Archive, totaling 561 uploads. That’s a lot of potential reminiscing and there are episodes on a huge range of topics from long-gone platforms like the early Amiga home computers to early network security, several rounds of browser wars and the dawn of widespread online gaming. If you’ve enjoyed this blast from the past, check out the rest of the collection.
Do you have any favorite episodes or similar shows? Share your favorite bits and stories of computers past in the comments, below.