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Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Computers in use

CHSTM 042-zx81-(2)
Sinclair ZX81 microcomputer.  Considered variously as a 'pregnant calculator' and as 'the motorbike of computers', the ZX81 contained just four chips, cost £69.95 pre-assembled (1981), and provided countless British families with their first experience of hands-on computing. 

Commonly identified as a defining technology of the later twentieth century, the computer has been cast in many roles: mathematical time-saver, corporate status symbol, agent of social liberation, disposable consumer good. Users, likewise, have taken on numerous identities, and have interacted with computers in various ways -- and the influence of computing and information cultures extends far beyond direct access to the machines.

Work at CHSTM focuses on understanding the history of computing in the context of use and interpretation. We go beyond the dazzlingly rapid, seemingly unstoppable 'progress' of accounts based on hardware metrics to consider where and why computers have been adopted, how they have been understood, and what forms they have taken.

Recent PhD research by Tom Lean, based on oral history interviewing, examined how enthusiast users of early personal computers became cottage industry producers of hardware modifications and software, defining new markets to which large-scale manufacturers responded. James Sumner's research considers why some computing formats survived and others did not, looking at compatibility and loyalty niches as strategies for survival. Ian Martin's current PhD work focuses on the introduction of computers to British banking in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, as a case study in how a white-collar industry redefined itself professionally, industrially, socially and spatially in its efforts to deal with the challenges of automation.

Manchester's computer heritage is strong. The world's first electronic digital stored-program computer, which first ran at the University in 1948, set a longstanding pattern for collaboration between academics and local industry, and later became a key resource in the city's 'Information Society' self-presentation. As home to the National Archive for the History of Computing, CHSTM is one of the principal British sites for academic study in the field. Researchers based at CHSTM in recent years have included Geof Bowker and Jon Agar, both responsible for internationally-acclaimed studies in the history of computation and information management. Today, we work with groups including the Museum of Science and Industry on the artefacts of various 'computer revolutions' and their importance for the wider world.

Recent publications by CHSTM staff and students

James Sumner. "Standards and compatibility: the rise of the PC computing platform". In James Sumner and Graeme Gooday, eds, By whose standards? Standardization, stability and uniformity in the history of information and electrical technologies. Vol 28 of History of Technology (series editor: Ian Inkster), London: Continuum, 2008, 101-127.

Thomas Lean. "From mechanical brains to microcomputers: representations of the computer in Britain, 1948-1984". In Alice Bell, Sarah Davies and Felicity Mellor, eds. Science and its publics. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008, 179-200.

James Sumner. "What Makes a PC? Thoughts on Computing Platforms, Standards, and Compatibility". IEEE Annals of History of Computing, 2007, 29(2), 88-87.


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