Filming the History of Computing

Triumph of the Nerds (DVD)

Next month, the Computer History Museum in Mountain View is screening a new documentary called Something Ventured. To my knowledge, this is the first documentary on the history of computing intended for theaters. Okay, technically it is a history of venture capital, not computing. But the primary focus is on entrepreneurial firms in computing or closely related industries: Intel, Atari, Apple, and Cisco are featured prominently. This has inspired me to consider the state of history of computing documentaries. Most of them that I'm aware of have been made for television. Foremost among those in my mind is the three-part Triumph of the Nerds, by computer journalist Robert X. Cringley (a.k.a. Mark Stephens). It aired on PBS in 1996, and is currently available on DVD. Cringley's approach hews to that of his 1992 book Accidental Empires, telling the story of personal computing primarily as the story of Apple and Microsoft, i.e., by synecdoche, the story of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Cringley also wrote and hosted Nerds 2.0.1: A Brief History of the Internet, which aired on PBS in 1998. Sadly it was only ever released on VHS, and I've never seen it. A broader history of computing, going back to the World War II origins of electronic computing, can be found in the BBC's The Dream Machine, which aired in 1991. In about 90 minutes it covers Alan Turing and the Pilot Ace, the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, IBM, Xerox PARC, and of course Steve Jobs. It has not to my knowledge ever had a home video release, but interested parties might perhaps find clips of dubious legality on a certain video hosting website. Two episodes of the History Channel's series Modern Marvels have focused on the computer, as well. The Creation of the Computer (1995) spends half of its length on the "pre-history" of electronic computing--Babbage and Lovelace, Hollerith and the punched-card industry, and the creation of ENIAC. Then it provides a rapid-fire history of the birth and growth of the computer industry in the second half. It also features extensive interviews with Smithsonian historian Paul Ceruzzi. The follow-up, Computers (2000), I have not seen, but appears to provide a similar, but more up-to-date take. Both are available on DVD. Finally, I have to mention two labors of love available on-line from Jason Scott, maintainer of, an archive of the early on-line world. His first release was the 2005 multi-part epic, BBS: The Documentary, which I highly recommend if you have any interest in the subject. Although the production values are not impressive, the number of fantastic interviews that Scott was able get is. As both a primary and a secondary source for the history of the BBS, this documentary is (to my knowledge) unparalleled. His more recent work, 2010's Get Lamp, which I have not seen, takes a similarly in-depth approach to the history of text adventure games. That's all I have, please let me know what I've missed!