Yes, Even YOU Can Own a Computer (This Day In History – August 12, 1981)

Thirty-five years ago today, IBM introduced its first personal computer, or PC, complete with an operating system.

By today’s standards, the computer’s specifications were unimpressive: 4.77 MHz Intel 8088 microprocessor, 16 kilobytes of memory (expandable to a whopping 256kb!), an external cassette or floppy disk drive, and an optional color monitor. The price was a cool $1,565, nearly $4,000 in today’s money. Gazoinks!

Yet the IBM PC was a momentous leap in consumer technology for a number of reasons, including its distribution and its components.

Unlike previous attempts within the fledgling personal computing market, the IBM PC was distributed through established retail chains, like ComputerLand and Sears Roebuck. This created widespread availability across a very large geographical area, so interested consumers could easily find and purchase the product.

Another distinguishing factor about the IBM PC is its use of off-the-shelf parts. This open architecture made manufacturing, repairs, and upgrades easier, while also exposing the market to competition.

Not surprisingly, it did not take long for IBM clone computers to appear on the market. Increased competition fueled innovation, and consumer demand for personal computers swelled. Thanks to plenty of supply and economies of scale, personal computers became more affordable to consumers. By the end of the decade, the number of personal computers in use in the United States had jumped from about 2 million in 1981 to nearly 54 million in 1990 (according to the International Data Corporation).

Corporate Innovation

In hindsight, the shift from office automation to personal computing was a good move for IBM. But it was highly controversial within the company at the time. How could such a large and notoriously bureaucratic corporation be so innovative?

The answer is the use of independent business units, or IBUs. IBUs are dedicated subsets of large organizations designed to operate relatively independently for a focused purpose, such as innovative technology. IBUs enjoy funding from the corporate coffers, while their smaller size gives them the benefit of faster decision-making processes.

This is precisely what IBM did in the late 1970s and early 1980s to develop its personal computer, within an independent business unit nicknamed “Project Chess”.

Conclusion

Personal computing has certainly come a long way since 1981. Sure, our smartphones are more powerful than IBM’s 1981 PC. But let’s still take a moment to pause and appreciate the spark of innovation that helped bring computers into our homes.

(Want to feel really old? My son once asked me why Word has a funny-looking square icon for “Save”. Yep… Kids today don’t necessarily recognize a floppy disk! Why would they? Disks are so old school!) 😉

Penicillin… A Star Is Born (This Day In History – May 25, 1940)

On this date in 1940, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain of the University of Oxford injected eight lab mice with lethal doses of streptococci bacteria. They then administered penicillin to four of those mice. The next day, the four mice that received penicillin were healthy. The other four were dead.

The effect of mold in fighting bacteria was first discovered (by accident) by Alexander Fleming in 1928. Fleming had just returned to his laboratory after a month-long vacation with his family. Before he left, he was working with cultures of staphylococci bacteria, which he stacked and stored before leaving for vacation. When he returned, he found that one of his cultures contained a moldy substance, around which the staphylococci colonies had been destroyed. He wrote up his observations, but little attention was given to his paper until Florey and Chain began their work.

The first human trial took place the year after Florey and Chain’s experiment. In its sole subject, penicillin had immediate effect. The only problem was limited supply.

During World War II, Florey managed to convince some chemical companies in the United States to start mass-producing penicillin, in time to treat Allied troops invading Europe. Production soon increased, and production costs plummeted.

Fleming, Florey, and Chain were recognized for their achievement with the Nobel Prize in 1945.

Today, penicillin and other antibiotics are considered miracle drugs that save countless lives. In 2010 alone, more than 7.3 billion standard units of penicillin were consumed worldwide.

Mr. Watson, Come Here (This Day In History – March 10, 1876)

We give very little thought these days to picking up a phone and calling anywhere in the world. Or texting. Or snapchatting. We are immensely connected to one another, a reality that has had monumental implications on our societies, economies, and more.

The world was entirely different just 140 years ago, when Alexander Graham Bell made the first ever telephone call to his assistant Thomas A. Watson, who was in the next room. (Couldn’t he just get up and walk over to his desk?!)

Bell, like several members of his family, devoted his life to the study of sound, specifically elocution, acoustics, and speech. His interest was motivated by the fact that both his mother and his wife were deaf.

In the years preceding Bell’s famous invention, telegraph communication was popular, consisting of tones transmitted via telegraph wire. However, it was clear that this form of communication would not suffice for long. From his laboratory in Boston, Bell went to work on developing a solution for transmitting sound via wire.

Initial experiments with transmitted sound produced promising, yet muffled results. To be effective, this technology would have to transmit the human voice clearly enough to be understood by someone on the receiving end.

As with many innovations, Bell was not the only inventor working to produce a feasible solution for transmitting vocal sound, but he was the first to patent the invention, issued on March 7, 1876, as U.S. patent #174,465, for “the method of, and apparatus for, transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically … by causing electrical undulations, similar in form to the vibrations of the air accompanying the said vocal or other sound.”

Three days later, he demonstrated a working prototype of the telephone, by calling his assistant Watson. He said, “Mr. Watson—Come here—I want to see you.”

And with that, the telephone was born!

(Curiously, Watson remembers the famous words slightly differently, as instead being “Mr. Watson – Come here – I want you,” so you could say that this was also the first game of telephone as well!)

Let There Be Light! (This Day In History – January 27, 1880)

On this day in 1880, the United States Patent Office granted patent #223,898 to Thomas Edison, for “an electric lamp for giving light by incandescence.”

As Edison toiled in his Menlo Park workshop, numerous inventors were also hard at work trying to create incandescent light. While Edison was not the first, his light bulb offered something the others did not: practicality. His bulbs stayed lit long after those of his competitors has burned out.

Edison had powerful connections in industry, including the profoundly wealthy J.P. Morgan, whose home was the first to be equipped with electric light.

Soon after, Edison spearheaded the electrical wiring of several blocks in New York City, in a bid to gain the public’s trust for this strange new innovation. (It is said that President Benjamin Harrison refused to touch the light switches in the White House after electricity was installed during his term.)

The buzz over electricity sparked a rivalry between Edison, still backed by Morgan, and his brilliant former employee Nikola Tesla, himself financed by George Westinghouse. The two inventors disagreed on the better current for transporting electricity: AC (Tesla) or DC (Edison).

Their feud came to a head at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, an unparalleled showcase in which to demonstrate the glory of electric light. Both men bid for the contract to provide lighting for the fair. Tesla and Westinghouse ultimately won the contract.

The rivalry between Edison and Tesla continued for many more years, fueled by their financiers, Morgan and Westinghouse. Finally, facing an insurmountable debt, Westinghouse pressured Tesla in 1907 to back off his claim for royalties tied to AC power generation. In his frustration, Tesla tore up the contract altogether, allowing Westinghouse to continue implementing AC power without the burden of having to pay royalties.

In the end, Tesla’s AC technology won, but Edison’s business sense prevailed. Both men are recognized today for their contributions to the modern age.

Whether you side with Team Edison or Team Tesla, this was certainly a notch in the timeline of human invention.

The Dancing Bees of Karl von Frisch

Born this day in 1886 was Karl von Frisch, an ethologist (scientist specializing in animal behavior) best known for his pioneering work with bees. Frisch studied the sensory perception of bees and famously discovered the fascinating language of the honey bee.

Although many animals are known to communicate with one another, bees have developed a sophisticated language expressed through movement, described as a dance.

Honey bees live in colonies of thousands of bees, each serving an important role for the benefit of the colony. There is a queen and about a hundred drones to mate with her. And then there are the worker bees, who travel away from the hive to search for food, in the form of pollen and nectar, sometimes over a mile away.

This is hard work for bees, so they figured out how to make it more efficient through communication. When a worker bee finds food, it recruits other bees through a sequence of movements. A round dance tells bees that food is nearby. For greater distances, it uses a “waggle” dance that communicates the direction and distance of the food.

Honey bees also dance to communicate acceptance of new home sites when swarming.

Karl von Frisch won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1973 and died in 1982.