The Birth Of The Modern World

[ Posted Wednesday, January 24th, 2024 – 15:48 UTC ]

Few people will actually celebrate it, but today is the 40th birthday of the modern world. Because on this day, back in 1984, Apple Computers began selling the first Macintosh model. And thus 1984 was not like Nineteen Eighty-Four.

That's what the ad promised, at any rate. The television ad that introduced the Mac only ran nationally once (during the Super Bowl, no less), but it's still one of the most memorable ads of all time (which it should be, seeing as how it was directed by none other than Ridley Scott). This all seems entirely appropriate for the revolutionary product it was promoting. In the timeline of technological advancement in average people's lives, there was "before Mac," and then there was "after Mac" -- which is the world we all live in today. And it all started forty years ago.

As an actual computer, the Mac wasn't all that impressive. Instead it was a great leap forward in the philosophy of what a personal computer should be, and how humans should interact with it. It was the concepts that were revolutionary, much more than the hardware. Most of the revolutionary hardware within the Mac (and its all-but-forgotten bigger sister, the Lisa -- which had come out years earlier but was so outrageously expensive that few people bought one) was actually developed by other companies. It took the vision of Steve Jobs to put it all together into one consumer product.

Jobs was a genius, but he wasn't what you'd call a computer engineering genius or a programming genius. He was instead a brilliant synthesist -- he recognized the genius of certain disparate emerging technologies and fused them all together into one paradigm-changing product. Much of the actual inventive genius was actually done by other companies (Xerox, for the most part, as well as Sony and others). But Jobs saw how it could all fit together and change computing forever.

Here is a list of the most revolutionary design features incorporated into the Macintosh, a computer the public could buy for a semi-reasonable price (again, with apologies to the remaining Lisa fans still out there, where much of this appeared first... as well as to those stalwarts who still insist that the Commodore Amiga implemented it all better, which even I have to admit is true):



When you bought a Macintosh, it came complete. There were no "daughterboards" to buy, no "slots" to fit them in, no external video monitor -- in fact, no third-party hardware or software at all (that you had to purchase separately and then hope it would work correctly). The Mac came as an all-in-one unit. You took it home, opened up the box, and within a half an hour, you were up and running. Which brings us directly to...



There were five items inside the original Macintosh's box. The first and biggest was the computer itself, which came complete with a built-in monitor and built-in floppy drive. You could easily pick it up with one hand (it had a little built-in handle for precisely that purpose). It was fairly small and non-threatening. It wasn't the most powerful of machines -- for years, it only supported a smallish black-and-white monitor (not color), for instance. It originally had no hard drive at all. It only came with 128K of RAM built in (and please note that that's a "K," not even an "M"). But it was all in one case and it was ready to go. Which was an entirely new concept.

The other four items in your Mac box were: a power cord, a curly phone-handset-type cord, a keyboard, and a mouse. A child could have fitted them all together with the main unit. It took minutes -- and that's even without bothering to read the instruction booklet. It was all so obvious. The power cord fit into a socket on the back, and then plugged into the wall. The phone cord only had two sockets where it would fit, one on the front of the machine and one on the keyboard -- making it impossible to wire incorrectly. The mouse had an attached wire with a clunky sort of plug at the end of it that fit into a socket on the back (the only such socket back there that would fit it -- again, impossible to mess it up, really).

That was it. That was all you had to do before you could turn it on and start playing with it. Compared to what other personal computers were like at the time, it was revolutionary in its simplicity.


The mouse

Apple didn't develop the mouse. But the Mac made it a star. The basic technology had been around for a while, although it was initially upside-down. Ever play an old-style "Missile Command" video game in an arcade? Then you're familiar with the "track-ball." A mouse was a track-ball turned upside down, with a little box to maneuver it around your desktop, and a little button on the top of it you could click. A fairly simple device, but it changed computing forever.


Harder, smaller floppies

Up until this point, floppy disks lived up to their name. They were indeed floppy. They were bigger, too, at 5.25 inches square. The Mac had a newer, more compact floppy drive that read the new Sony 3.5-inch floppies. These were contained not in rather flimsy (and floppy) cardboard, but in a hard little plastic case. You could even stick one in the back pocket of your jeans, they were so small (as long as you remembered to take it out before you sat down, otherwise you might hear a sharp "crack" as the case snapped in two).


[All of the items on this list have been hardware, so far. But the two truly revolutionary developments incorporated into the Macintosh were both software-based:]



Pronounced "gooey," this term stands for "graphical user interface." Icons, in other words. Little folders that looked like manila folders, little files that looked like pieces of paper, and little disks that looked like disks. A "desktop" area to work on. Up top, a "menu bar" to select from. A little pointer you could move around freely with your mouse. "Windows" to show you what was inside of disks and folders. And graphical imagery to show you what was going on (like a folder opening up to show a new window, complete with all the folders and files it contained).

Again, this was revolutionary stuff, folks!

The Macintosh was designed around two simple ideas: that you would only type a file name once, and that you would never have to remember a command's name. For those who aren't old enough to understand how revolutionary this was, consider how computers operated previously:

You got a screen with a little blinking text cursor on it, and you had to type out a command (like "PRINT," for instance, or "OPEN"). This command had to be followed by a filename, or not just a filename but a whole pathname that identified not only the file but the entire directory structure it lived in (such as "C:\taxfiles\returns\1984\1040\mytaxes.xls"). If you mistyped the command, you'd get: "SYNTAX ERROR." If you mistyped the filename (or anything else in that pathname), you'd get: "FILE NOT FOUND."

If you don't understand parts of that previous paragraph, thank the Macintosh. You don't have to understand any of that anymore. The Mac made it all obsolete.

You typed a filename on a Mac precisely once, and that was when you first named it. You never typed a command. Instead, you moved your mouse up to the top of the screen and selected from a list of commands. Then you'd get a little window with a list of all the files that existed for you to choose from, and you just clicked on the one you wanted. Easy-peasy. It was impossible to screw up the command syntax or the filename because you never had to type either one.

Again, only people who know what home computing was like before the Mac existed can even understand how revolutionary the graphical user interface truly was. When you wanted to move a file from one folder to another, you just moved it. You didn't have to type out (without making a single error): "MOVE C:\taxfiles\returns\1984\1040\mytaxes.xls C:\taxfiles\returns\thisyear\working" -- instead you just picked up the little file icon with your mouse, dragged it to the new folder icon and dropped it in. When you wanted to delete a file, you just dragged it to the little trash can icon and then selected "Empty Trash" from the menu.

Of course, since it's been 40 years, the GUI concept has further evolved and gotten even simpler. Nowadays all you need is a finger on your touchscreen, tapping and swiping away. But the concept is exactly the same -- as are the icons.



Pronounced "Whizzy-wig," this acronym stands for: "what you see is what you get." When you opened a word processing document, for instance, you saw exactly what you were going to see when you printed the document out. If you had changed fonts, the text appeared on the screen using the new font. If you had strange margins or columns or whatever, they all appeared as they would on the page.

Younger readers might be wondering, at this point: "Well, how else would it all appear?" The answer is linked to the GUI, since pre-Macintosh computers used what used to be called an "80-column text card" to drive the monitor's display. And it was set up like a little grid -- you could type 80 characters across and then you were forced to start a new line. All the text appeared exactly the same -- same height, same width, in the same font. The text glowed on your screen, on a black background, in very low resolution. You had to type in special commands to do things like make text italic or bold, or to change fonts or font sizes. Anyone who has worked on a modern web page would instantly recognize the use of "tags" to do this, because they are exactly the same as they were back then. An "I" tag would mean "from this point on, everything will be in italic," and that would be true up until you hit an "/I" tag.

It all worked, to be sure, but it was clunky and hard to use. It also appeared as an absolute mess on your 80-column text screen. It looked nothing like it would printed out.

On the Macintosh, when you opened a word-processing file, it looked like a piece of paper. The text was black on a white background, it appeared in very high resolution (for the time period), and it looked exactly like you wanted it to look -- font changes, formatting changes, all of it appeared exactly as it was going to on paper. It was mind-blowing in its simplicity. Later, when Apple unveiled the first LaserWriter, the end-product printout was mind-blowingly sharp and clear as well (laser printing obliterated the dot-matrix printer era, because it was so obviously and powerfully superior).


All of this changed -- everything on that list -- with the introduction of one new consumer product (again, my apologies to the Lisa folks, but I point out in my defense that the Mac was actually semi-affordable to average consumers, while the Lisa was not).

The introduction of the Macintosh 40 years ago today truly gave birth to the modern world. I am proud to say that I was personally involved (to a very minor degree) in this cutting-edge technology, in my previous life working in Silicon Valley. I wasn't there at the very start, but I started working in the Macintosh Division of Apple Computers one year later, at the start of 1985. The very first LaserWriter was still in beta testing when I started, which was another revolutionary leap forward (as was the "AppleTalk" LAN that connected it to everyone's computers). I saw, first-hand, how the future was going to look -- years before it filtered down into the general public's consciousness so deeply that few today even think about where any of this stuff started.

Again, to be fair -- very little of the technology contained within the first Macs was invented by Apple. The concepts were mostly developed elsewhere (most of them at Xerox PARC in Palo Alto, to give credit where it is due), and then refined to the degree necessary to make it bulletproof and pathetically easy to use. That refinement was all done by Apple, at the direction of Steve Jobs.

Forty years ago today, the world changed. In a big way. These changes are so pervasive that they are now the background of how we use technology. Nobody gives them much thought at all anymore. But someone had to at the start, to get the whole ball rolling. So I would encourage everyone to join me in wishing the Macintosh computer (and by extension, the modern computing world) a very happy 40th birthday!

birthday cake

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


2 Comments on “The Birth Of The Modern World”

  1. [1] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    ... and then Bill Gates got ahold of it

  2. [2] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    Awhile back my son had been building with duplo blocks, and he walks into our room in jeans and a black long sleeved crew neck t-shirt. He said he has built a machine to cut apples and squash them into some juice. My wife says oh my God he looks like Steve Jobs. I said Hugo, did you just build an apple machine?


    Will the world love it? my wife chimes in.

    Yes. (Totally sincere)

    It was priceless.

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