PC Evolution from Mainframe to Perceptual Computing

Evolution of natural interfaces continues to make computers more intuitive, according to historians at the UK’s National Museum of Computing.

Kevin Murrell National Museum of Computing

Kevin Murrell with a PDP11 radar station computer donated to the National Museum of Computing by National Air Traffic Services and originally in use at West Drayton in southern England. Photo courtesy of National Museum of Computing.

Wearable computing devices, smartphones, tablets and Ultrabooks now deliver more computing power than machines that once filled an entire room, but according to a pair of British computing historians, despite the PC evolution the underlying technology has remained largely unchanged for almost a half-century.

“Computing is much the same as it was 40 years ago,” said Kevin Murrell, a trustee of the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, England. “It’s a huge amount faster, more energy efficient and a lot smaller, but the general principles are still there.”

Murrell, whose specialty is post-1945 computer history, recently visited Silicon Valley’s Computer History Museum with his colleague, David Hartley, director of the UK museum. The pair spoke about how the advent of personal computers disrupted the early mainframe era and how PC evolution will continuewith more natural touch and gesture interfaces, and eventually perceptual computing.

PC Makes Computing Personal

Hartley, a former director of the Cambridge University Computing Service and adviser for the British prime minister’s office, recalled the epic shift in user behavior that occurred when the PC arrived.

“I go back to the mainframe days when I had a job running a mainframe on behalf of a whole university,” he said. “We had 8,000 users and the name of the game was to share out that mainframe amongst all of those users,” said Hartley. “There was a lot of hassle about it. People argued whether they should have more time than someone else. It became a resource allocation problem.

“Then PC came along and the problem went away. Not that it’s suddenly more powerful than the older machines, but that it belonged to one person. The PC allowed people to have access without hassle.”

Murrell remembers that back in 1984 the personal computer seemed to work right out of the box for the first time and how attractive and friendly it was to use.

David Hartley National Museum of Computing

David Hartley in front of the Harwell Dekatron, aka the WITCH computer, in the National Museum of Computing. Photo courtesy of National Museum of Computing.

“Before that, it did require a stack of manuals, a lot of keyboard dexterity, understanding of the commands and syntax,” he said. “That went away and it made such a big difference to people’s acceptance and general use of the machines.”

Hartley said that Microsoft Windows was one of those advancements. “Suddenly it not only becomes more accessible, it becomes usable,” he said.

PC Evolution Brings with New Interfaces

Murrell sees today’s man-to-machine user interface, namely a keyboard and a mouse, giving way to more human-like interactions such as touch, voice and gesture control that are improving computing experiences.

“The better that gets, the more intuitive it becomes to operate the machine, the greater the acceptance,” said Murrell.

Waving both hands in the air he said, “See, I’m doing this now, pointing and gesturing …I want this and I want that there. It is such a natural thing to do. Perhaps it will be just a matter of me thinking about printing a file and it will print.”

PC Evolution from Mainframe to Perceptual Computing

Evolution of natural interfaces continues to make computers more intuitive, according to historians at the UK’s National Museum of Computing.

Kevin Murrell National Museum of Computing

Kevin Murrell with a PDP11 radar station computer donated to the National Museum of Computing by National Air Traffic Services and originally in use at West Drayton in southern England. Photo courtesy of National Museum of Computing.

Wearable computing devices, smartphones, tablets and Ultrabooks now deliver more computing power than machines that once filled an entire room, but according to a pair of British computing historians, despite the PC evolution the underlying technology has remained largely unchanged for almost a half-century.

“Computing is much the same as it was 40 years ago,” said Kevin Murrell, a trustee of the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, England. “It’s a huge amount faster, more energy efficient and a lot smaller, but the general principles are still there.”

Murrell, whose specialty is post-1945 computer history, recently visited Silicon Valley’s Computer History Museum with his colleague, David Hartley, director of the UK museum. The pair spoke about how the advent of personal computers disrupted the early mainframe era and how PC evolution will continuewith more natural touch and gesture interfaces, and eventually perceptual computing.

PC Makes Computing Personal

Hartley, a former director of the Cambridge University Computing Service and adviser for the British prime minister’s office, recalled the epic shift in user behavior that occurred when the PC arrived.

“I go back to the mainframe days when I had a job running a mainframe on behalf of a whole university,” he said. “We had 8,000 users and the name of the game was to share out that mainframe amongst all of those users,” said Hartley. “There was a lot of hassle about it. People argued whether they should have more time than someone else. It became a resource allocation problem.

“Then PC came along and the problem went away. Not that it’s suddenly more powerful than the older machines, but that it belonged to one person. The PC allowed people to have access without hassle.”

Murrell remembers that back in 1984 the personal computer seemed to work right out of the box for the first time and how attractive and friendly it was to use.

David Hartley National Museum of Computing

David Hartley in front of the Harwell Dekatron, aka the WITCH computer, in the National Museum of Computing. Photo courtesy of National Museum of Computing.

“Before that, it did require a stack of manuals, a lot of keyboard dexterity, understanding of the commands and syntax,” he said. “That went away and it made such a big difference to people’s acceptance and general use of the machines.”

Hartley said that Microsoft Windows was one of those advancements. “Suddenly it not only becomes more accessible, it becomes usable,” he said.

PC Evolution Brings with New Interfaces

Murrell sees today’s man-to-machine user interface, namely a keyboard and a mouse, giving way to more human-like interactions such as touch, voice and gesture control that are improving computing experiences.

“The better that gets, the more intuitive it becomes to operate the machine, the greater the acceptance,” said Murrell.

Waving both hands in the air he said, “See, I’m doing this now, pointing and gesturing …I want this and I want that there. It is such a natural thing to do. Perhaps it will be just a matter of me thinking about printing a file and it will print.”