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

Christian Cawley 23-01-2013

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 3 Reasons Why You Never Forget Your First Computer I think for geeks, that first computer is a little bit like a first love. You remember it longingly, even though it isn't anything that would make you at all happy today. It has nothing... Read More . 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.


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 Instant Inspiration: Watch Steve Jobs' Greatest Ever Speeches Not everybody is a fan of Apple. Nor was everybody a fan of Steve Jobs, one of the two Steves who founded the company, and the one who turned it from an also-ran into the... Read More and Steve Wozniak, has plenty of references to much loved early computing milestones and is genuinely a pleasure to watch.


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 The History Of Linux [INFOGRAPHIC ] If there's one thing which must really piss off Bill Gates to no end, it must be the enduring popularity of Linux and other free software, as it undercuts his "if you want good software,... Read More 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

Meanwhile, Hackers 95 will give you an insight into the beginnings of hacking and the hacktivist movement, and can be accessed by visiting

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.


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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  1. Brett
    June 24, 2013 at 1:25 am

    Triumph of the Nerds was a good documentary, but Mr. Cringely always struck me as an Apple fan boy through and through. He presents this program as the history of the personal computers but leaves out one of the best selling personal computers of all time. The Commodore 64. He also neglects to even mention Atari's line of very capable 8-bit computers as well as the quite popular TRS-80 The Amiga was still around when Windows 95 was released and had an OS that was and still is IMHO light years ahead of anything Microsoft or Apple could produce.

    • Eric
      January 27, 2016 at 12:12 pm

      The reality is that the Atari, the Amiga and even the C64 and the Apple are now little more than footnotes in the annals of history. The C64 was a flash in the pan. It rose quickly but fell just as rapidly. Its influence as a 'market leader' lasted only for four, perhaps five years. The same for the Amiga. Its lack of commercial success limited its influence on the history of computing--it's remembered for great multitasking and video, but, Apple's Mac had great commercial success without either. Apple went after ease of use for everyday tasks, and, that proved more revolutionary (in terms of influence) than a personal computer that could multitask smoothly or do amazing feats with video.
      By comparison, the Apple was the trigger for the personal computing revolution. The IBM with its off-the-shelf parts laid the foundation for the clone wars, and, their mistake to not buy MS DOS lead to Microsoft's success and IBM's ultimate exit from the PC market. The Mac laid the foundation for the modern desktop.
      PS I'm not disputing the technological feats of the Amiga. I just don't see a legacy for that computer in the state of computers in 2016 (or, in 2013).

  2. Elizabeth
    January 30, 2013 at 1:31 am

    There's one about the 30th Anniversary of GNU with Adams' friend, brilliant U.K. comedian and technophile himself Stephen Fry. I forget the name of it, maybe someone can enlighten me?

    Also, has anyone heard anything about the Ashton Kutcher Steve Jobs movie? I saw "Pirates of Silicon Valley" with the nerdy kid from Breakfast Club as Gates and Noah Wiley from E.R. as Jobs, and that one was pretty good. If anyone's seen clips I'd be interested to hear reviews. Mostly because I can't stand Kelso (esp. since his horrendously misinformed Penn State comments and the Demi Moore fiasco) and think it's downright blasphemy to cast this has-been punk as one of the greatest innovative geniuses of the 20th Century. (Dude, where's my Dogcow?) *eyeroll*

  3. Ann K.
    January 28, 2013 at 8:31 pm

    You left out one of my favorite films on this subject, 'The Machine That Changed the World'.

  4. NNerds PC
    January 25, 2013 at 4:05 am

    I have collected a lot of info about the early days of computing. I still have my CP/M Kaypro 4, my Commodore Vic-20, and the one of the first Compaq Luggable Computers. I started using the Apple II back in High School when the excitement was to connect to BBS's over our 300 Baud MODEM.
    I was lucky - My Dad was a Manufacturers Rep and had access to many computers. The Kaypro, Vic-20 was mine, but I picked up the Compaq Luggable at a Garage Sale for $10. They all still work.
    I have the Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires (1996) - Book and Videos (VHS) and the Nerds 2.0.1: A Brief History of the Internet (1998) Book and Vidoes (VHS). I worked at Novell back in the 90's and early 2000 - 2005. They eventually acquired the rights to Digital Research DRDOS and with that.. CP/M. We actually got a CP/M call and I was the only one that knew that old OS. That's when I worked back in Novell Tech Support.

  5. Brian Fitzpatrick
    January 24, 2013 at 7:00 pm

    Wow, I didn't know about Hyperland, I'll have to watch it Tonight when I get home.

    Now Mr. Cawley, I know these are all Documentaries about how things got started for "us all" with Computers and I've seen a couple of these before, but I think the most entertaining Movie about the Computer and the Internet ala Steve Jobs/Bill Gates/Steve Wozniak has to be " THE PIRATES OF SILICON VALLEY " from back in 1999. Now I know the Movie is a liitle "Hollywooded" but it shows them all the way back from the days in the garage, their struggles and then to being the Giants they became. I especially loved the part when they were at their 1st computer show trying to sell their 1st computer and the doors opened up and all of the people rushed into see them with "Inagaddavida" blasting away in the background....too frekin cool...

    To me, not only is this a very entertaining Movie, but it also pretty much tells the Story of "da boys" and how it all got started...and of course some funny parts too with Gates failing terribly at trying to pick up on some Girls at the Roller Rink....or Jobs being stoned out of his mind running around in circles with a bad case of the munchies.
    Some good acting by Anthony Michael Hall and Noah Wyle too. Hey and its even a well done enuf Movie that you can get your non-nerdy girlfriend/wife to watch with you.

    Check it out if you haven't ever seen it.

    • Christian Cawley
      January 24, 2013 at 7:03 pm

      Great recommendation Brian. We'll perhaps include it in a future look at tech events that became movies...

      • Brian Fitzpatrick
        January 24, 2013 at 8:23 pm

        Oh yeah Christian, you said your 1st computer was a Commodore 64, I got my 1st computer in 1984, it was a TRS80 or what we fondly called 'em " Trash 80's ". Green Screen and all....
        NOTE : I knew about 7 or 8 people who had TRS80's and none of us ever called them "CoCo's.....why do I find that reference sometimes now ? I mean I know what it refers to : color computer...but ??
        Do you remember those big fat 7" disc's ? those were some real " Floppies"
        I also remember working at the Indian River Community College in Vero Beach, FL on my liitle TRS80 as a College Clerk in 1985 and having to make a program for students to check out text books ( I was using BASIC ) and it took like over a 100 lines of code ( IF, THEN, ELSEIF, ) to just get the program to let the students put the date, their name and the book they were checking out into the screen....and then a couple of buddies and I actually made a combo-clone of the games Astroids and Space Invaders...boy you want to talk about some time behind the keyboard writing lines and lines...I think it took the 3 of us like 2 weeks to finally get a working model up and running ( our fingers were cramping up/eyes blurring and had to be tagged out by one another ) and then about another 2 weeks to get all of the bugs out of it so it became user friendly.
        Then in 1998 I actually built my 1st computer with a beige tower and 13 bags of parts from a computer fest in Charlotte, NC and ended up with a badass ( at the time ) PII 300mhz, I think it was called a "Klamath " CPU, 64mb's of RAM and an 8GB HDD.
        But yeah ever since then I've built a couple hundred rigs for business', friends and myself.

        but yeah those early days were something else ...I'm sure I'll get all nostalgic watching Hyperland tonight.
        ...take care and great article.

  6. Stephan Huebner
    January 23, 2013 at 9:38 pm

    Oops, sorry, not sure what happened. For some reason my first comment didn't show up for a while, so I thought it didn't get posted.

    • Tina Sieber
      January 25, 2013 at 9:00 pm

      Happens frequently. Certain keywords and number of words, and URLs will send a comment to the moderation queue where it is eventually approved by a human moderator. This can take a while, sorry about that!

      • Stephan Huebner
        January 27, 2013 at 12:58 pm

        Thanks for the explanation.

  7. ReadandShare
    January 23, 2013 at 9:37 pm

    Christian wrote, "Back in 1982 I became the thrilled owner of a Commodore 64. An expensive present for a six year old".

    I feel a tinge of sadness reading that... 1982 was the year I graduated from college... oh where have all the years gone?

    1982 -- our business library bought TWO spanking-new IBM PC's. Two, for the entire school!! You'd think there would be long lines waiting to use these desktops? Nope. My last semester there, I never saw anyone using it. We didn't know how. But the dumb terminals hooked up to our HP 2000 mini computer? Yep. Those got used a lot.

    • Christian Cawley
      January 24, 2013 at 7:06 pm

      I'm sorry to make you feel so old. If it's any consolation, I was old beyond my years in those days. (I made up for it when I got older, however...)

      Nice account of computing in 1982. A few years ago I found a load of old computer magazines from around that time. The business machines were huge and to the untrained eye seemingly unusable.

  8. Stephan Huebner
    January 23, 2013 at 9:09 pm

    Two other fine documentaries, both by the same guy:

    "Get Lamp - A documentary about adventures in text" -> Yep, about text adventures indeed. ->

    "BBS - The documentary" -> About The Bulletin Board System. ->

    • Christian Cawley
      January 24, 2013 at 7:07 pm

      Thanks Stephan, two great suggestions!

    • Paul van Jaarsveld
      January 25, 2013 at 4:09 pm

      Yes, I was about to suggest BBS documentary as well, but I see Stephan beat me to it!

  9. Chuck Payne
    January 23, 2013 at 8:41 pm

    I have about Revolution OS, you are missing one, Welcome to the Mac, it very nice and online.

  10. Tech Nech
    January 23, 2013 at 7:42 pm

    This is nice collection which I didn't knew about. Thanks for this! Gonna spend my whole night watching them all. Thanks!