The Machine That Changed the World is the longest, most comprehensive documentary about the history of computing ever produced, but since its release in 1992, it’s become virtually extinct. Out of print and never released online, the only remaining copies are VHS tapes floating around school libraries or in the homes of fans who dubbed the original shows when they aired.
It’s a whirlwind tour of computing before the Web, with brilliant archival footage and interviews with key players — several of whom passed away since the filming. Jointly produced by WGBH Boston and the BBC, it originally aired in the UK as The Dream Machine before its U.S. premiere in January 1992. Its broadcast was accompanied by a book co-written by the documentary’s producer Jon Palfreman.
Part 1: Great Brains
The first part begins with a brief introduction to the series, summarizing the impact of computers on every aspect of our lives, attributed to their versatile nature. The history of computing begins with the original definition of “computers,” human beings like William Shanks that calculated numbers by hand. Frustration with human error led Charles Babbage to develop his difference engine, the first mechanical computer.
Part 2: Inventing the Future
The second part, “Inventing the Future,” picks up the story of ENIAC’s creators as they embark on building the first commercial computer company in 1950, and ends with the moon landing in 1969 and the beginning of the Silicon Valley. Shortly after the war ended, ENIAC’s creators founded the first commercial computer company, the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation in 1946.
Part 3: The Paperback Computer
The third episode of The Machine That Changed the World covers the development of the personal computer and the modern graphical user interface, which made computing easy to use for everyone. Highlights include interviews with Apple’s Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, drawing with a computer in 1963, great footage from Xerox PARC, and some 1992-era predictions of the future from Apple and others.
Part 4: The Thinking Machine
The fourth episode of The Machine That Changed the World covers the history of artificial intelligence and the challenges that come from trying to teach computers to think and learn like us.
Part 5: The World at Your Fingertips
Here’s the fifth and final episode of The Machine That Changed the World, this one focusing on global information networks including the Internet, and the communication benefits and privacy risks they create.