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Was the Internet Inevitable?

Can we imagine an alternate history resulting in many isolated networks?

2 min read
Illustration: Dan Page
Illustration: Dan Page

Many novels have portrayed alternative versions of history, such as Robert Harris’s Fatherland: A Novel (originally published by Hutchison, 1992) or Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (first published by Putnam, 1962). In both books the Axis powers are victorious in World War II, and the world today is dramatically different. However, in spite of technology’s role in shaping history, there appear to be few books in which history is altered by imagined changes in technological innovation. An exception is the 1991 novel by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, The Difference Engine (first edition by Bantam Books), in which Charles Babbage perfects a steam-driven analytical engine and the information age arrives a century earlier.

The Difference Engine launched an entire subgenre of speculative fiction and a corresponding aesthetic, both dubbed steampunk. But outside this subgenre’s narrow confines (which often owe more to Jules Verne’s conventional, forward-looking science fiction than to Gibson and Sterling’s deliberately retrospective approach), there is a dearth of historical technology fiction. This may be because technology seems to evolve in a robust and inalterable manner, unchanged in the long run by outcomes of individual events. For example, suppose that the transistor had not been invented at Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1947. In all likelihood, that invention would have occurred soon thereafter at some other place. Before long someone else would have fabricated the first integrated circuit, and ultimately technology might be little changed today. It’s as if there are preordained stepping-stones along a pathway of innovation that are simply uncovered when the time is right. The paradox, of course, is that those stepping-stones are evident only in retrospect.

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How Ted Hoff Invented the First Microprocessor

Hoff thought designing 12 custom chips for a calculator was crazy, so he created the Intel 4004

14 min read
How Ted Hoff Invented the First Microprocessor

The rays of the rising sun have barely reached the foothills of Silicon Valley, but Marcian E. (Ted) Hoff Jr. is already up to his elbows in electronic parts, digging through stacks of dusty circuit boards. This is the monthly flea market at Foothill College, and he rarely misses it.

Ted Hoff is part of electronics industry legend. While a research manager at Intel Corp., then based in Mountain View, he realized that silicon technology had advanced to the point that, with careful engineering, a complete central processor could fit on a chip. Teaming up with Stanley Mazor and Federico Faggin, he created the first commercial microprocessor, the Intel 4004.

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