Computer Revolution

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In the early twenty-first century, the computer revolution is exemplified by a personal computer linked to the Internet and the World Wide Web. Modern computing, however, is the result of the convergence of three much older technologies—office machinery, mathematical instruments, and telecommunications—all of which were well established in Europe in the twentieth century.


Office machinery was first developed in the United States in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Office machines mitigated clerical drudgery and facilitated the systematic organization of large-scale offices. The most important machines were typewriters, calculators, punched-card accounting machines, and filing systems. American companies such as Remington Typewriter, Burroughs Adding Machine, and International Business Machines (IBM) were the most prominent firms, and all established European subsidiaries. Several major European manufacturers such as Imperial Typewriter (Britain), Olivetti (Italy), Mercedes (Germany), and Bull (France) became established in the opening decades of the twentieth century.

The modern electronic computer was invented in the United States in 1946. As originally conceived, the computer was a mathematical instrument designed for the solution of numerical problems. As such, the electronic computer was the culmination of a line of development that began with Charles Babbage (1792–1871), who was followed by such pioneers as Leonardo Torres y Quevedo (1852–1936) in Spain, Louis Couffignal (1902–1966) in France, Konrad Zuse (1910–1995) in Germany, and Alan Turing (1912–1954) in England. In the 1950s the scope of the computer broadened to include data processing, as well as mathematical problem solving. The office-machine giant IBM quickly dominated the computer industry worldwide. As well as hosting several IBM subsidiaries, Europe sustained an indigenous computer industry with firms such as Britain's ICL, Machines Bull, Siemens, and Olivetti.

Electric telegraph systems were simultaneously developed in many countries around the middle of the nineteenth century. Telegraphs were initially used for signaling on the newly built railways, but soon found a lucrative market for the transmission of news, market, and financial information. The International Telegraph Union, established in Bern, Switzerland, in 1865, created standards for the international transmission of messages. The early years of the twentieth century saw the development of national telephone systems. There were several European telecommunications manufacturers that became successful multinational operators, including Siemens and Telefunken in Germany, Ericsson in Sweden, and General Electric in Britain. The telephone was widely used in business throughout Europe by about 1910, but domestic diffusion varied greatly; in some countries of Europe it was not until the 1970s that telephones were routinely available in homes. In the 1960s and 1970s telephone systems were fully automated, dispensing with connections made by human operators, and the international range was extended so that it became possible to dial direct to most advanced countries.


From the mid-1960s on, computers and telecommunications became increasingly integrated, enabling many businesses to conduct transactions in "real time." The most visible manifestations of this new way of conducting business included airline reservation systems, automated teller machines, and barcode scanning in supermarket checkouts. Less visibly, the electronic data interchange (EDI) movement enabled firms to interact electronically, eliminating the economic friction of paper-based systems. For example, when a supermarket checkout registered the sale of an item, this information would be transmitted to the supplier of the item so that stocks could be replenished automatically. In the 1980s "just-in-time" operations revolutionized manufacturing: manufacturers and their suppliers became electronically entwined so that inventories could be eliminated and orders for components and subassemblies delivered on demand.

In the 1970s the development of microelectronics and the invention of the microprocessor transformed not only business computing but also consumer electronics. The most popular consumer items of the early 1970s were video games, hand-held calculators, and digital watches. Video-game hardware manufacture was initially an American phenomenon, and was later dominated by Japanese producers. Europe, however, was well placed to develop video-game software both to appeal to indigenous tastes and for international markets. The development of the pocket calculator saw the rise of new producers such as Sinclair in the United Kingdom, and the demise of the old-line calculating machine manufacturers. Digital watches were initially expensive gadgets that appealed largely to technologically fixated males. As the technology matured, however, digital watches became cheaper, more reliable, and more accurate than their mechanical predecessors. In the second half of the 1970s the mechanical watch industry, especially in Switzerland, was devastated, and manufacturers had to reposition their products as fashion accessories and luxury items for discerning buyers.

The personal computer emerged as a consumer item in the late 1970s. The first machines, such as those made by Apple, Commodore, and Tandy, were imported from the United States, but European manufacturers soon entered the market producing their own designs. Few if any of these personal computer firms came from the traditional computer industry. In 1981 IBM, the leading business computer manufacturer, entered the personal computer market with two important consequences. First, the imprimatur of IBM legitimated personal computing for businesses, which had not until then generally viewed desktop computers as being capable of serious information processing. Second, the entry of IBM established a standardized "PC," which caused a massive shakeout and consolidation of the industry. By the end of the decade most PCs were being supplied by a small number of multinational firms, predominantly American and Japanese, although Europe supported a number of second-tier players such as Siemens and Olivetti.


Although Europe was relatively unsuccessful as a computer manufacturer, it was very successful in adopting and adapting information technology to improve its industrial competitiveness and information infrastructure. By far the most important European development—though ultimately only partly successful—was videotex, which promised an Internet-like experience a full decade before the Internet came to prominence.

During the period from 1979 to 1984, national videotex systems were developed in some fifteen countries including Britain, France, and Germany in Europe and also Canada, Australia, and Japan (but not the United States). Videotex was intended to provide an information service for businesses and consumers. The videotex technology was developed in the United Kingdom and was based on the teletext system devised there for broadcast television in the early 1970s. National videotex systems were developed in complex public–private partnerships, with the network infrastructure funded and controlled by the national PTTs (postal, telegraph, and telephone authorities), augmented by private-sector information and equipment suppliers. With the single exception of France, in every country where videotex systems were developed, after an initial burst of enthusiasm, they failed to take off as consumer services and gradually faded away or became purely business systems. France, however, launched its national videotex system Télétel as a grand project in 1982. Télétel was seen as a means of modernizing and complementing France's aging telephone infrastructure—and the "killer application" would be an online telephone directory. The French government provided inexpensive terminals for telephone users, and by 1988 there were 4.2 million terminals and 9,500 information providers. The French initiative showed, long before the Internet euphoria of the 1990s, that a government could kick-start an information revolution. The failure of videotex elsewhere had multiple causes: the technology was expensive and somewhat immature, and the nonparticipation of the United States undermined its credibility. By the early twenty-first century, France was in the uncomfortable position of migrating to the global Internet.

Although the Internet is generally perceived as an American invention, in fact it is built on a constellation of technologies and standards that were negotiated and developed worldwide over a thirty-year period, starting in the second half of the 1960s. One of the underlying technologies of the Internet, for example, is packet-switched communications, which was initially developed in the National Physical Laboratory in the United Kingdom in the 1960s. Many of the computer networking concepts on which the Internet is based were first elaborated in the Geneva-based International Organization for Standardization. Europe's most important contribution to the Internet was the invention of the World Wide Web by the British-born computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee, while working at the CERN European Particle Physics Laboratory in 1991. Up to that time the Internet had been primarily used by the technical and scientific communities, but the World Wide Web opened it up to ordinary citizens by means of point-and-click software that was very easy to use.

Europe has been an enthusiastic adopter of the Internet. By 2005 nearly 50 percent of European Union citizens had access to the Internet, and the rest of Europe was catching up fast (with about 17 percent having access). In the future the Internet will have massive but unpredictable consequences for Europe, as for the rest of the world. For example, the Internet is already enabling firms to reach global markets for which their small size and remoteness were formally insuperable barriers. The Internet has enabled the "outsourcing" of labor—from which some countries benefit, while others lose out. And the adoption of American English as the lingua franca of the Internet poses a significant challenge to Europe's diverse cultural heritage.

See alsoScience; Technology.


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Randell, Brian, ed. Origins of Digital Computers: Selected Papers. 3rd ed. Berlin, 1982.

Rojas, Raúl, ed. Encyclopedia of Computers and Computer History. 2 vols. Chicago, 2001.

Martin Campbell-Kelly