From “Calculator” to “Computer”

After reading the articles this week, I have obtained a new perspective to view my computer. For so many times, I took the convenience of technology development for granted that I even have an illusion somehow that modern computer was born to be a modern computer.

I’m going to talk about what I’ve learned from a brief “graphical interface history”.

  • 1945: Vannevar Bush published his essay, “As We May Think”, predicting the future of computer and explicating how “Memex”(a portmanteau of “memory” and “index”) would work. He raised the idea that the next step for scientists was to make the recording of “confusing” and “complicated” knowledge easier and more explicit.
  • 1960: “Man Computer Symbiosis”written by J.C.R. Licklider outlined a plan of turning computers from military and commercial tools into cooperators of human beings in daily life.
  • 1963: Ivan Edward Sutherland invented “Sketchpad”, ancestor of modern computer-aided design programs.
  • 1968: Douglas Engelbart delivered the famous speech “Mother of All Demo”, showing a series of new things and concept including graphic interface, mouse and video conference. Inspired by Bush, Engelbart explored on new techniques that would do massive recordings of human activity thus augmenting human intellect. In his article, he said that “the intellectual worker must know the capabilities of his tools and have good methods, strategies, and rules of thumb for making use of them”.
  • 1970s: Alan Kay came up with the model of “Dynabook”and a new computing language “smalltalk”, deeply impressed by “Mother of All Demo”. he even created a new term “matamedium” to show the speciality of “Dynabook”.

From the timeline we can see that the concept of HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) has been passed generation by generation with the main idea of helping human beings better improve themselves. Bush’s personal library Memex, ,Licklider’s “man computer symbiosi”, Sutherland’s Sketchpad, Engelbart’s graphic interface and mouse and Kay’s Dynabook and smalltalk are all attempts of putting computer to a cooperator position in the relationship of human-computer. In this way, computer is not the machine that was once named “calculator” to solve a set of complex mathematical problems. The concept of “computer-as-technology” has been shifted to “computer-as-medium”. By the term “metamedium”, Kay tended to show a new property of computer — “being simultaneously a set of different media and a system for generating new media tools and new types of media”. It reaches to other media (for example, a music recorder, a digital album) exchanging properties and borrowing their unique features.

The role change of computer is also reflected in its Chinese name. I remember that when I was a kid, people called the computer “jisuanji”, which is the same meaning to “calculator”. In recent years, the name “diannao” becomes popular. In contrast to the Chinese character “Rennao”, “Diannao” has a literal meaning of “electronic brain” while the former one refers to “brain of human beings”.

Unfulfilled Principle:

By the model of Dynabook and smalltalk, Kay tried to enable people without background in computing create their own tools. However, what I observed in my daily life is that people are using computers to do things that can also be done with “traditional” tools (but would be more time- or energy- consuming).

Also, the question is still waiting to be answered that Bush raised in the article “As we may think” about whether it would be possible in the future that the path for people creating or absorbing material of record could be established directly.


Vannevar, Bush. 1945. “As We May Think.” Atlantic, July.

Licklider, J. C. R. 1960. “Man-Computer Symbiosis.” IRE Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics HFE-1 (1): 4–11. doi:10.1109/THFE2.1960.4503259.

Engelbart. 2003. “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” First published, 1962. As reprinted in The New Media Reader, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, 93–108. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press,

Manovich, Lev. 2013. “Software Takes Command”. International Texts in Critical Media Aesthetics, volume#5. New York ; London: Bloomsbury.