RETRO: Set to take over world

Computers - Pictured is the new �600,000 Sheffield Corporation computer. 5 May 1972
Computers - Pictured is the new �600,000 Sheffield Corporation computer. 5 May 1972
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How does it work? “Who the hell cares? Listen there’s too much mystique about these things over here. It’s not how they work, it’s what they do that matters.”

So said US microcomputers expert Leslie Solomon in a feature printed in the Sheffield Telegraph in 1978. There was much distrust in computers back then - even fears that they might take over the world. So what was Solomon’s response to that? “You switch on the TV, there’s a picture. You don’t like it so you switch channels.

Computer at United Steels - 22 December 1964

Computer at United Steels - 22 December 1964

“Humans know where the power plug is.”

If only he had known then just how these devices would miraculously shrink over the coming years and in 2013 would be carried in virtually every pocket with no power plug anywhere near.

Back in 1978 we ran a series of reports on The Computer Revolution which estimated that there were 50,000 computers in use in Britain. If you throw in smart phones, tablets, laptops and PCs there is probably close to that in some of Sheffield’s larger neighbourhoods today.

In 1968 an average-sized computer would have filled a large room in an office or factory and cost more than £50,000.

It took just a decade to harness that power in a box measuring 18 inches by 12 inches and for the price to drop to between £5,000 and £12,000. Both the size and the cost have kept on falling ever since.

All hail the arrival of the silicon chip which by 1978 was already the secret behind the digital watch, the pocket calculator and the electronic telephone exchange. Here is how Ian Draffan, head of computer studies at Sheffield Polytechnic, saw the future back then: “Their potential is virtually unlimited. I can see the day when children grow up with microcomputers in their home as we grew up with television. I am sure the pocket computer is not far away, linked to a computer back at home on which we’ll be able to do all our household budgeting.”

One final thought from him on whether we were all becoming too computer dependent : “Take the hospital, for example. We could use computers to carry out treatment for a patient. But would we want to lose the nurse?”