Skip to content

Computers in the 1960s: A Transformative Decade of Innovation

My friend, the 1960s was an absolutely remarkable decade for the evolution of computers. In just ten years, computers underwent unprecedented advances in programming languages, hardware capabilities, networking, usability – you name it. By 1970, computers bore little resemblance to the bulky scientific calculators of the late 1950s. The 1960s planted the seeds for the personal computing revolution that followed. Let me walk you through some of the key breakthroughs and innovations that defined this transformative decade.

New Higher-Level Programming Languages Forever Changed Software Development

In the late 1950s, rudimentary languages like assembly and FORTRAN existed, but programming computers was still a very manual, technical process. The 1960s saw the creation of more refined programming languages that transformed software writing.

COBOL, or Common Business-Oriented Language, emerged in 1959-60 and quickly became the dominant language for commercial data processing throughout the 1960s. What made COBOL so popular? It used English-language words and phrases instead of arcane code. This made COBOL readily understandable to managers and business analysts compared to earlier languages. By 1965, COBOL accounted for over 50% of all code written for computers. Its self-documenting nature boosted productivity.

Another groundbreaking language called ALGOL, or Algorithmic Language, arose in 1960. ALGOL was designed for scientific computing and introduced powerful new constructs like recursive functions and nested code blocks. While not as widespread as COBOL, ALGOL’s structured programming concepts directly influenced future languages like Pascal, C, Java, and more.

Year Milestone Programming Language Key Contributions
1959-60 COBOL English-like syntax for business data processing
1960 ALGOL Structured programming for science and algorithms

So in the course of just two years, programmers suddenly had higher-level languages that immensely boosted productivity and opened up new applications for computers. Software was no longer just a technical domain for specialists.

Hardware Capabilities Exploded Through Innovations Like Minicomputers

The 1960s saw tremendous gains in computing hardware capabilities through faster processors, expanded memory, and new input/output devices. This enabled new potential for computers.

IBM continued its dominance in large-scale computing with new mainframe systems like the System/360, which could support up to 8MB of memory. But major strides also happened in smaller, more affordable systems. In 1965, Digital Equipment Corporation released the PDP-8 minicomputer, which retailed for just $18,000. Minicomputers brought the power of computing to more organizations by striking a balance between capability and cost.

Whereas mainframes required dedicated operators and teams to run jobs, minicomputers were often interactive systems with visual terminals. They opened up hands-on computing to smaller companies, labs, hospitals and beyond. The minicomputer market rapidly expanded from $5 million in 1965 to over $500 million by 1970 as prices dropped and capabilities increased. DEC became one of the fastest growing companies in history by riding this trend.

Year Milestone Hardware Release Key Contributions
1964 IBM System/360 Mainframe Mainstream business computing
1965 DEC PDP-8 Minicomputer Affordable computing for new segments

Advances in display technology paralleled the growth in interactive minicomputer usage. Visual display terminals transitioned from crude printouts to CRT monitors that could render text and graphics. This visual interactivity enabled more intuitive programs with graphics output. The seeds were planted for the graphical user interfaces to come.

Software Capabilities Multiplied Through Timesharing, OSes and Languages

Programming techniques matured rapidly to make software capabilities more powerful and accessible to regular users.

In the early 1960s, computing followed a batch processing model where users submitted job bundles to be run sequentially. But then timesharing systems emerged that enabled multiple users to access and run programs interactively on a centralized computer. This simultaneity fostered collaborative software development and allowed more people to utilize computing resources.

The 1964 release of the BASIC programming language (Beginner‘s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) gave non-technical users a friendly way to write their own programs on minicomputers and primitive PCs. BASIC used english words and mathematical notation to lower the barriers to coding.

And in 1969, Bell Labs developed the landmark Unix operating system. Unix introduced groundbreaking modular architecture that made software highly portable across systems. It formed the foundation for today‘s Linux, MacOS, iOS, and Android operating systems.

Year Milestone Software Advance Key Contributions
Early 1960s Timesharing Interactive simultaneous computing
1964 BASIC language Accessible programming for hobbyists
1969 Unix OS Modular, portable architecture

These software innovations made computing accessible and empowering for so many more people.

Networks and Data Storage Matured to Unlock New Potential

All of this rising computer usage created demand for more advanced infrastructure when it came to networks and data storage.

Prior to the late 1960s, computer networks were limited to point-to-point links. But then AT&T began developing a switched telephone network for digital data transfer in 1966. This paved the way for ARPANET in 1969, the pioneering wide area network created by the Department of Defense to connect research institutions. ARPANET was the earliest form of what became the global internet.

In terms of storage, data capacities were incredibly limited in the early 1960s with typical hard drives holding just a few megabytes. But then IBM introduced the dual-sided floppy disk in 1967, which could store 80KB on removable media. Floppy disks became ubiquitous for portable data storage and transfer. Hard drive capacities also began scaling up exponentially by the late 60s due to technology improvements, reaching hundreds of megabytes.

Year Milestone Infrastructure Advance Key Contributions
1966-69 Digital switched telephone network Enabled early computer networks
1967 Floppy disk (80KB) Portable storage for data and programs
1969 ARPANET First wide area computer network

This infrastructure provided the backbone required to support the growth in computing usage.

The Mouse Pointed to the Future of Human-Computer Interaction

While most 1960s advances affected areas like programming or hardware, one invention from 1963 pointed toward the future of human-computer interaction – the computer mouse.

Developed by Douglas Engelbart at Stanford Research Institute, the mouse allowed fluid cursor control and navigation using a handheld pointing device. Engelbart‘s 1968 public demo also introduced other soon-to-be standard interfaces like windows, hypertext, and video conferencing.

The mouse embodied the enormous potential for human-centered design in computing. Although it took over a decade to reach mass adoption, the mouse and graphical UI paved the way for the watershed moment of personal computing in the 1980s. It shaped how people would come to intuitively interact with computers.

Conclusion: A Pivotal Decade of Exponential Progress

When you step back and look at the 1960s holistically, it‘s amazing how much computers transformed in just one ten-year stretch. Programming evolved from esoteric code to higher-level languages that opened up software capabilities. Hardware made exponential gains in processing power whilealso becoming more affordable. Networks and data storage matured to support rising adoption. And the human-computer interface went from blinking lights to interactive visual displays and the landmark mouse invention.

By 1970, the computing landscape bore no resemblance to that of 1960. Computers had moved from room-sized machines for scientists and mathematicians to interactive tools for businesses and end users. The 1960s represented a pivotal inflection point that gave birth to minicomputers and laid the groundwork for the microcomputer revolution that followed in the 1970s and 80s. The innovative spirit of that era continues to inspire technologists today. It was a remarkable decade that demonstrated the transformative power of computing to enhance human productivity and change the world.

Join the conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *