Computer: from a monstrous machine to a friendly device

One of the first mainframe computers.

A new technology that arrived by the end of the 1940s revolutionized the world, leading to important shifts from mechanical machines to digital devices and giving birth to the Digital Era by the ‘80s. Like radio or television, the computer has evolved to fit the needs of the times and is considered a major agent of social change. ENIAC was the first mainframe computer, created in 1946[1]. It was capable of executing many programs at the same time and of transferring data at a high speed. It was primarily used in the scientific and military field. Permitting new experiences, it was a significant advance for scientists. But, for ordinary people, computers were controversial. They responded to it with foreboding. Computers, especially mainframes, brought worries and hopes. As computer technology developed, its impact on society changed too. I will use the example of « Robert, » a hypothetical American, to discuss the evolution of the computing technology and its impact on society, until its democratization in the ‘80s, through Robert’s experience with computers.

Robert is now aged 80 and has experienced the shift of computers from an evil machine to a nice and must-have electronic device. He studied economics and has worked for over 45 years in an important American bank. He married Gloria, a schoolteacher. He has seen the birth of the computer throughout media, he has experienced it at work with a distant eye and he rediscovered it when computers became personal.

For an ordinary person in the 1950s, like Robert, the arrival of this big computing machine created fear.

An example of mainframe from which tv stations get their weather forecasts in the ’60s (IBM System/360 model 50)

This large room-sized computer was distant, cold and used for war, according to Robert. He feared it because of its appearance and because of the way it was used.He saw what mainframes could do to the world through the period of the Cold War. It can destroy entire cities and it can kill many people.Computers spread to other fields such as businesses, universities or governmental agencies. Robert was one of the many white collar workers who experienced the computer at work. He remembers the arrival of a mainframe at his work. It was tremendous news for him and his colleagues. They were all convinced that it could replace them and create unemployment. This artificial intelligence would be more efficient and reliable than human. Thanks to it, production was greater. “There was no need for humans no more” he thought at that time. Computers were demonized; they were first killing people and then replacing them. From this apocalyptic response to the new technology, Robert and many ordinary people developed and suffered from computerphobia. This term was coined to express anxiety about computers and the fact that it could replace human for many tasks at work. They were afraid of losing control and power, but they were also afraid of being stupid before a computer and alienated by this “evil” machine. Robert says that people, him included, started to compare it to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s monster. Indeed, Shelley told the story of a man’s creation that takes control over his inventor. Like the monster, the computer was feared and mysterious to people.

Robert remembered also he read a book when he was still a young boy which influenced his vision of computers. It was George Orwell’s novel 1984. It tells how society would be in the future with new technology and was written right after the creation of ENIAC (1946). Orwell’s 1984 portrays computers as surveillance machines that take control over humans. In 1968, the director Stanley Kubrick gave a similar portrait of computers in a new future. This is how Robert perceived the plot. In the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, computers are out of control and are running wild in front of a powerless mankind.George Orwell and Stanley Kubrick witnessed the fears around computing devices. They are part of the philosophical school of dystopian determinism. They believe that technologies will lead to the destruction of humankind. This fear is a natural reaction that comes from the fact that a new technology is mysterious and unfamiliar.

Besides that, Robert saw the launching of the first man on the Moon. NASA employed five mainframe computers to program the Apollo 11 mission in 1962. Ordinary people were enthusiast and excited about this; it was a revolutionary moment of the history of humankind. Robert remembers  that he was with his wife Gloria, watching the transmission on television. “We were so excited, it was unbelievable that our country sent people on the Moon,” he affirmed. It was gratifying for all American people, « it also shown our greatness in the Cold War period.”

« Computer in Society – The Cybernated Generation. » Time Magazine, April 1965.

Media helped a lot in de-demonizing computers. In April 1965, Robert read Time Magazine’s special edition on computers. It dedicated its cover to a mainframe computer, depicting it as a humanized computer: a human face with a big brain in the back that eats data with its metallic mouth and that types with skeletal, mechanical hands. The seven humans depicted are smaller than the computer. They seem to be subordinated by it. The roles are reversed, the machine takes control over humans. This is exactly what Robert and his friends worried about when they talked about computers. In the article, Robert read that computers are not human and they can’t be because they have neither creativity nor imagination. They are defined as “a triumph of technology to be developed”[2]. The magazine gave Robert a more positive image of computers. Five years later, he read a positive review on computers in another magazine[3], which defined it as something “fun” and useful for people’s daily lives. Media played an important role in his acceptance of this new technology. Robert started to accept the presence of computers in his professional life and for the advancement of society. He saw that computers helped in sending man to the moon and that they help in simplifying people’s lives. Robert learned more about it and his computerphobia gradually vanished over the months. This cultural process helped in transforming fear into acceptance. Over the years, it has also become an addiction…

First Apple computer - Macintosh, 1984.
First Apple computer – Macintosh, 1984.

He also saw the arrival of a new form of computer in the ‘70s: the personal computer or P.C. Steve Jobs (creator of Apple) and Bill Gates (creator of Microsoft), two main geniuses of the computing field, gave a new shape to computers adapted to ordinary people. The personal computer was a small machine for single-user made for every household. Which is a room-sized mainframe. The fact that it was personal was really appreciated by Robert and his friends. They could write text freely, they could also create digital paintings (with Macpaint). The most striking ad he saw by that time was during the 1984 Superbowl football game in the USA. Apple, Inc. introduced its first personal computer: the Macintosh Computer.

Painting application on Macintosh.
Painting application on Macintosh.

The ad referred to George Orwell’s “1984” vision of computers, showing humans alienated by a big screen called “Big Brother” that has control over everything. Apple’s product was depicted as a way to save mankind, and therefore as completely different from Orwell’s dystopian vision. The ad ended with a simple text: “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.”From this date, computers were not seen as monstrous machines anymore. Apple’s Macintosh represented the shift from the enormous room-sized machine into a human-sized typewriting machine. Robert was enjoying this new object, he felt he had entire control over the machine. He could write texts and play video games. Moreover, he really appreciated the fact that the computer itself said “Hello” when turning it on. Robert felt a connection with his own computer. He also saw the democratization of computers on the market. Computer shops opened and spread all over the world. Computer clubs were created and video games developed. Just like Robert, other people were attracted by the idea of possessing a P.C. Using it was becoming an addiction.

Computers entered into people’s private life because they were fashionable. They were the must-have friendly devices in the middle-class family.Robert also read interviews with desperate spouses that asked to divorce because husbands were too occupied using the new family friend. Indeed, Robert put his wife Gloria in second place, he was so enjoying his own computer that did not really care about his wife. Robert told a funny anecdote about it. To Gloria, it was as if he was cheating on her and in front of her. She hated living with that “digital mistress.” Though she learned to live with it, because she started to use it too. They both laugh about it now.

Nowadays, digital devices surround them and us. Robert said that it was intense to live in the fear and to become addicted to computers. He has had the opportunity to experience the first computer and to see that what was enormous at the time is now reduced to a hand-sized thing.


« Computer in Society – The Cybernated Generation. »  Time Magazine, April 1965.

Hang, Sungook. « Man and Machine in the ’60s. » DLA Journal, Spring 2004. Web. 15.05.2015 (

Hayden, Steve. 1984. Advertisement directed by Ridley Scott. Produced by Fairbanks Film. Apple Inc., 1983. Web. 15.05.2015 (

« How to stop worrying and love the computer. » Newsweek Magazine, July 1970. Web. 15.05.2015 (

LaFrance, Adrienne. « When people feared Computers. » Atlantic, March 2015. Web. 15.05.2015 (

Orwell, George. 1984. Secker and Warburg, London. 1949.

Reed, Lori. « Domesticating the P.C.: the mainstreaming of a New Technology and the Cultural Management of a Widespread Technophobia, 1964, »Critical Studies in Media Communication » 2000: 159-185. Web. 15.05.2015 (

Shelly, Mary. Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus. First published in 1818, London: Penguin Books, 1923.

Surry Daniel W. and Farquar John. « Diffusional theory and instructional technology. » Journal of Instructional Science and Technology, 1997. Web. 15.05.2015 (

2001: A Space Odyssey. Film directed by Stanley Kubrick. 1968.

[1] John Von Neumann, J. Presper Eckett and John Mauchly came up with the concept of the stored instruction digital computer: 18 000 vacuum tubes for 167m2 of floor space.

[2] “Computer in Society – The Cybernated Generation”, Time Magazine, April 1965.

[3] “How to stop worrying and love the computer” Newsweek Magazine. July 1970.

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