A Few Glimpses into the Design Evolution of Computers

I think it was the vision of an open source, accessible computing device to anyone who would want to operate it, that was responsible for beginning of the era of personal computing. Memex, the proto hypertext system that acts as a central universal human augmented knowledge system was conceived as a democratic pool of knowledge (Bush, 1945, p44).

So many design steps that developed in a staggered fashion in the past 70 years are responsible for the way the computer is assembled currently, both physically and digitally. Computers began as numerical and logic processors (Irvine, 2018, 7). But soon in  the 1950’s, we could find the first manipulation of bits to convert these number crunchers into cognitive symbolic mediators. The first stage was alphanumeric symbols printed on scrolls of paper using binary representation. By the 60’s we had CRT screens, instruments used in physics laboratories, that could be repurposed to display inputs and outputs in a computer using bit mapping: a type of memory organisation that enables pix maps. Pix maps are what allow storing of two or more colours in pixels that allow for an image to be displayed on this CRT.

This was the birth of an interface to directly interact with the digital and soon there was a need for smarter “user interfaces”. Douglas Engelbart invented the first mouse using a small blob of wood and two wheels in the bottom, at right angles to each other,  so that the corresponding selection on the screen could move across the X-Y axis (Of course the cursor had to be invented yet) (Moggridge, 2007, 27).

At this point, I think the notion of augmenting human intellect as the defining paradigm of how computing evolves began to shake a little. “It is easy to understand the idea of going for the best, of catering to the expert user, and then providing a path to get there from a simple user interface designed for the beginner. In practice, however, this has proved to be the wrong way round, as it’s not easy to get something right for the beginner when your design is already controlled by something that is difficult to learn.” (Moggridge, 2007, 36). The ideal of reaching maximum augmentation of human intellect by catering to the expert user can be seen in the creation of one of the first proper assemblies of the modern computer. The NLS or the “oN-Line System”  was the first to employ the practical use of hypertext links, the mouse, video monitors, information organized by relevance, and other modern computing concepts. (Moggridege, 2007, 33-37)

It was Larry Tesler who realized the value of participatory design and how it was better to observe people interacting with your interface and make changes accordingly. He started performing what we today call usability tests. He is also respsonsible for the proper integration and invention of the “Double-click”, “Cut”, “Paste”, and Cursors (or improvisation in the case of cut-copy-paste).

All these functions and many other such developments are responsible for the way the computer now presents itself. For example, there may still be a key called “insert” which I last saw in my late 2004 windows enabled computer. This key once was used to insert characters or approve of commands. With the invention of the “Cut & Paste”, the insert key kept falling out of relevance and was repurposed for a few other actions until it became obsolete. It no longer exists on the mac keyboard.



Bush, Vannevar (1945). “As We May Think,” Atlantic Monthly 176 (July 1945)

, Bill. ed., Designing Interactions. Cambridge, 2007. Excerpts from Chapters 1 and 2: The Designs for the “Desktop Computer” and the first PCs. MA: The MIT Press, Pp. 17-68

Irvine, Martin. 2018. Introduction to Symbolic-Cognitive Interfaces for Computer Systems: History of Design Principles (essay).

Irvine Martin. Computer Interface Design Concepts: Major Historical Developments (Original Documents), Compilation.