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Personal Computer

Personal Computer

by William H. Benson

June 20, 2013

     Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak grew up in the sixties, in California’s counter culture. The musician Bono explained their influence. “The people who invented the twenty-first century were sandal-wearing hippies from the West Coast, like Steve Jobs, because they saw differently. The hierarchical systems of the East Coast, England, Germany, and Japan do not encourage this different thinking.”

     In his twenties, Steve Jobs did wear sandals, or he went bare-footed, and he grew a slight beard that, people said, made him look like Ho Chi Minh. He also subscribed to the Whole Earth Catalog. But what set him apart from the other hippies living in San Francisco was his fascination with electronic gadgetry and his friendship with Steve Wozniak, a very determined computer geek. 

     In his biography on Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson tells of a magic moment that Steve Wozniak experienced. Days he worked at his job, but nights he designed and soldered together a personal computer. At that time personal computers were defined as keyboard, screen, and a terminal that connected to a colossal computer elsewhere. At the Homebrew Computer Club’s first meeting on March 5, 1975, Wozniak saw the details for a microprocessor, and in a flash he had an insight: “keyboard, screen, and computer, all in one integrated personal package.”

     On Sunday, June 29, 1975, Steve Wozniak was ready to test his computer. “I typed a few keys on the keyboard and I was shocked! The letters were displayed on the screen. It was the first time in history that anyone had typed a character on a keyboard and seen it show up on their own computer’s screen right in front of them.” He told his best friend Steve Jobs, and the result was a partnership and the dawn of the personal computer age.

     There are those who would denigrate the personal computer and the internet. The economist Tyler Cowan, at George Mason University, wrote in his June 2011 short work The Great Stagnation that economic growth has slowed in the United States because of “falling rates of innovation,” and that we are “in an innovation rut.” Nothing in the last 50 years or so approaches the significance of electricity or the internal-combustion engine, inventions from the nineteenth century.

     The internet, Cowan says, “has yet to boost our standard of living significantly. It has, however, boosted our capacity for distraction, procrastination, and extended inquiries into trivia. The personal computer and its cousin, the smartphone, have brought about some big changes. But compared with what my grandmother witnessed, the basic [outlines] of life have remained broadly the same.”

     If Cowan is correct, that personal computers have failed to advance the greater cause of humanity, what innovation would? I think that another energy source is needed. Much of our modern world is built upon Rudolf Diesel and Gottlieb Daimler’s oil-powered internal combustion engines that generate James Watts’s steam-powered invention that turns a turbine that passes loops of copper wire over magnets in Michael Faraday’s electric generating invention. The world would welcome another fuel source from, say, the air or ocean water, a renewable and abundant resource, other than fossil fuel.

     Also, people would appreciate another form of personal transportation, other than the bicycle, motorcycle, vehicle, train, or aircraft. Despite Dean Kamen’s hype, the Segway Personal Transporter never caught on as Kamen expected. It balances itself, stands upright, and carries a single person at a speed greater than walking. Of more promise is the personal rapid transport system in Masdar City, in the United Arab Emerites, that carries people in driverless cars that follows an electronic track.

     Other people have innovative ideas. They say we need inexpensive battery-powered cars, or at the least hybrid cars. We need greater access to solar power, on our smartphones and laptops, similar to those on our calculators. We need to record in digital form all the world’s books. We need a kitchen device to flash freeze meat and vegetables, like a reverse microwave.

     What is not needed is another silly invention, such as the Popinator, a gun that shoots popcorn into a person’s mouth. Of those, Cowan says that “under the hood of our hallowed free market is a bazaar of nutty, half-cocked ideas that do not advance the greater cause of humanity one tiny bit.”

     Is Tyler Cowan right or wrong? Are we in an innovative rut? Perhaps, perhaps not. What his argument does though is ask people to consider extraordinary possibilities. To the question, “What else is there left to invent?,” some would say very little, but those who are equipped with broader vision would say that worlds of innovation are waiting for somebody to discover and market them.

     America and the world awaits the next generation of people like Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs.