Science fiction writer William Gibson famously stated, “the future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed.” Past events in the history of technology bear this out: Doug Engelbart, for example, blew the world away in 1969 with his demonstration of a futuristic working prototype of hypertext, windows, the mouse, word processing, videoconferencing and more. It took another 30 or 40 years for the ideas Engelbart showed to a stunned 60s audience to become mainstream. Similar ahead-of-the-curve experiments took place with email, the German WW II V-2 rocket program, and semiconductors, among many other technical and scientific disciplines.
People “ahead of their time” is a common trope in Western culture. From Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs, certain people have been able to see farther than anyone else. In fact, Edison and Jobs share something remarkable: they were ecosystem builders. Edison, as important as perfecting the electric light bulb, also created an infrastructure for the bulb to live in—power plants, massive amounts of wiring – and he built his first power station on Pearl Street in NYC, right near his Wall Street investors. Jobs, with Apple’s series of “i” devices, defined a software ecosystem of digital content as important as the devices themselves.
This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of a home computer built and operated more than a decade before ‘official’ home computers arrived on the scene. Yes, before the ‘trinity’ of the Apple II, the Commodore PET and the Radio Shack TRS-80–all introduced in 1977—Jim Sutherland, a quiet engineer and family man in Pittsburgh, was building a computer system on his own for his family. Sutherland configured this new computer system to control many aspects of his home with his wife and children as active users. It truly was a home computer—that is, the house itself was part of the computer and its use was integrated into the family’s daily routines.
Sutherland’s computer was called the ECHO IV – the Electronic Computing Home Operator.
ECHO IV comprised four large (6’ x 2’ x 6’) cabinets weighing approximately 800 lbs and included a central processing unit (CPU) constructed from surplus circuit modules from a Westinghouse Prodac-IV industrial process control computer; magnetic core memory, I/O circuitry and power supplies. With the permission of his employer, Westinghouse, Sutherland took these modules home and designed and built the ECHO IV in less than a year.
Programming and interacting with ECHO IV was accomplished by several means: front-panel switches on the main cabinet, a programmer’s keypad (for octal) near the main cabinet, a paper tape reader and punch, and the kitchen console, which was based on an IBM 735 Selectric typewriter and was used for word processing. This latter ability deserves a closer look. With ECHO IV, documents typed on the Selectric keyboard could be stored in ECHO IV’s memory, to be reprinted later. Formatting changes and page numbers could be automatically added to printed documents and, in 1975, ECHO IV was used to format a 516-page scholarly book on post-Revolutionary War land grant surveys. Here again is Gibson’s ‘unevenly distributed’ future – it would be decades before people would be doing word processing at home on their own computer
There's no doubt that the famous steel city has played a major part in the advancement of computers and technology. Our future generations depend on technology in almost every part of their everyday lives. As technology continues to grow Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania will forever be part of the computer history and the advancements made.
Be the first to hear about new products, upcoming sales, and special discounts.