Timeline of Computer History


Nimrod on display at Festival of Britain

Nimrod at the Festival of Britain

The Festival of Britain was designed as a nationwide display of British Arts, Technology and Culture following the widespread destruction of World War II. As a part of the festivities, computer company Ferranti provided a display for the Festival's activities in South Kensington (London). John Bennett, an Australian employee living in Britain, suggested building a machine to play NIM, a simple game where players take turns removing matches from piles in an attempt to be the last person to remove a match. An electromechanical device to play the game had been on display at the 1939 World's Fair in New York. Engineer Raymond Stuart-Williams turned Bennet's design into an actual machine that debuted at the Festival on April 12th, 1951. Ferranti took Nimrod to the Berlin International Show later in 1951, but dismantled it afterwards.


Alexander Douglas writes OXO for EDSAC

OXO screenshot

Alexander Douglas was a Cambridge University PhD candidate when he designed one of the earliest computer games, a version of Tic-Tac-Toe (known in Britain as 'Naughts and Crosses’), called OXO. Played on Cambridge's EDSAC computer, OXO allowed a player to choose to start or to allow the machine to make the first move. Using a rotary telephone dial to enter their moves, the EDSAC would display the game board on a 35 x 15 dot cathode ray tube. Few outside of Cambridge ever played OXO.


First computer scanned image on SEAC

Walden Kirsch, aged 3 months

One of the earliest applications of computers to image creation and processing starts with the work of Russell Kirsch on the Standards Eastern Automatic Computer (SEAC) in 1957. Working with the SEAC team, Kirsch designed a rotating drum scanner, allowing him to digitize an image of his young son, Walden. The image, a five-by-five centimeter black-and-white shot, was the first image to be scanned into a computer. In 2003, Life Magazine noted it as one of the “100 Photographs that changed the world.”


Higinbotham develops Tennis-For-Two at Brookhaven National Labs

Re-creation, Tennis for Two

Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, New York holds an annual “Visitor's Day” for families and area residents. William Higinbotham, looking for a way to entertain visitors, conceived of a simple electronic game that could be played using the lab's Donner Model 30 analog computer connected to an oscilloscope display. Working with David Potter, Higinbotham's creation allowed two players to play a game of 'tennis' on the oscilloscope screen, with simple physics for the ball, and even a sound whenever the ball was contacted.

Tennis-for-Two was only used for two years before being salvaged for parts. It only became widely known following Higinbotham's testimony in a trial over the video game Pong.


Spacewar! debuts

Screenshot, SpaceWar!

MIT receives a DEC PDP-1 computer in the fall of 1961. While there were some demonstration programs, Steve “Slug” Russell thought a game would make a better presentation. Along with Martin "Shag" Graetz and Wayne Wiitanen, he designes a space battle game based on the Lensman series of novels by E.E. "Doc" Smith called Spacewar! Two ships, one called the 'Wedge' and the other the 'Needle,' would fly around a star-filled background. Peter Samson provided a program called Expensive Planetarium that generated an accurate star-filled background. The game would later be distributed through DECUS, the Digital Equipment Corporation users group, ensuring it would become widespread in the technical and university computing communities.


BEFLIX developed at Bell Labs

Still from A Computer Technique for the Production of Animated Movies

In the early 1960s, Bell Labs is at the forefront of research into computer arts and graphics. Researcher Ken Knowlton, using the Lab's IBM 7094 mainframe computer, developed a specialized language for computer animation called BEFLIX. The language allowed Knowlton and collaborators, such as Stan Vanderbeek and Lillian Schwartz, to create 252 by 184 pixel images and animations using 8 shades of gray, which could be captured to film using a Stromberg-Carlson 4020 microfilm recorder. Some of these films are considered landmark works, such as Man and his World, which showed at the 1967 World's Fair in Montreal.

DAC-1 computer aided design program is released

DAC-1 CAD program in use

In 1959, General Motors Research Laboratories appoints a special research team to investigate the use of computers in designing automobiles. In 1960, IBM joined the project, producing the first commercially available Computer Aided Design program, known as DAC-1. Out of that project came the IBM 2250 display terminal as well as many advances in computer timesharing and the use of a single processor by two or more terminals.


Ralph Baer designs the Brown Box

Brown Box reproduction by Ralph Baer

In the summer of 1966, Sanders Associates’ television engineer Ralph Baer begins experimenting with using a television to play games. His first design, called the Brown Box, allowed users to play several different games on a standard television set, including table tennis game (presaging Atari’s Pong), without requiring a computer, microprocessor, or software. The Brown Box also had a light gun accessory for playing shooting games.


SIGGRAPH is founded

First SIGGRAPH Conference abstracts

Founded in 1969 by Andy Van Dam, the Association for Computer Machinery Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics (SIGGRAPH) has become one of the most influential groups in computing. Starting in 1974, the annual SIGGRAPH conference attracted graphics professionals and provided an important meeting ground for discussion and presentations on the state-of-the-art, with many companies and researchers debuting new releases or techniques. It continues to attract computer graphics professionals from around the world to its annual conference.


Computer Space is released

Computer Space arcade game

The cult success of Steve Russell's SpaceWar! and other early space battle games led Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney to design Computer Space, one of the earliest electronic arcade games. Using no microprocessor, RAM, or ROM, Computer Space was a simple technical design that still allowed for complex gameplay, so complex that many noted there was a steep learning curve involved in playing. While Computer Space did not sell well, it was featured in films like Jaws and Soylent Green.


Pong is released

Pong screenshot

California entrepreneur Nolan Bushnell hires young engineer Al Alcorn to design a car-driving game, but when it becomes apparent that this is too ambitious for the time, he has Alcorn design a version of Ping Pong instead. The game was tested in bars in Grass Valley and Sunnyvale, California, where it proved very popular. Pong would revolutionize the arcade industry and launch the modern video game era.

SuperPaint is completed

SuperPaint drawing system

SuperPaint is probably the first digital computer drawing system to use a frame buffer—a special high-speed memory—and the ancestor of all modern paint programs. It could create sophisticated animations, in up to 16.7 million colors, had adjustable paintbrushes, video magnification, and used a graphics tablet for drawing. It was designed by Richard Shoup and others at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). Its designers won a technical Academy Award in 1998 for their invention.


La Faim (Hunger) debuts

Title screen from Hunger

Filmmaker Peter Foldes, an international figure in animation since the 1950s, begins collaborating with Canada’s National Research Council in 1969. Working with computer scientist Nestor Burtnyk, Foldes directed this ten-minute film dealing with the idea of food inequality. Using the animation concept of key frame animation, where an animator would produce the most important frames and assistants would fill in the gaps, Burtnyk designed a program in which the computer filled in the gaps, producing an effect that made the images seem to glide from one to another. La Faim would win many international awards, including a special Jury Prize at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival, and an Academy Award nomination.


Star Wars (Death Star Briefing)

Death Star Briefing from Star Wars

Set in a Galaxy far, far away, Star Wars combined old-fashioned science fiction storytelling with cutting-edge special effects provided by Industrial Light & Magic. One effect, the Death Star briefing, featured a wire-frame version of the space station, one of the first uses of wire-frame animation in a major motion picture.

Atari launches the Video Computer System game console

Atari VCS prototype

Atari releases its Video Computer System (VCS) later renamed the Atari 2600. The VCS was the first widely successful video game system, selling more than twenty million units throughout the 1980s. The VCS used the 8-bit MOS 6507 microprocessor and was designed to be connected to a home television set. When the last of Atari’s 8-bit game consoles were made in 1990, more than 900 game titles had been released.


Arnie Katz, Joyce Worley-Katz, and Bill Kunkle form first video game magazine, Electronic Games

Cover Electronic Games

In 1981, Joyce Worley Katz, Arnie Katz, and Bill Kunkel co-found Electronic Games, the first video game magazine in the United States. Initially intended as an annual publication, early success led to it becoming a monthly within a year of the first issue. The Video Game Crash of 1983 led to Electronic Games renaming itself Computer Entertainment, before finally ceasing publication with its May 1985 issue.


Lucasfilm produces the Genesis Effect for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Still from the Genesis Effect

The major motion picture Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, features one of the earliest completely computer-generated cinematic image (CGI) sequences in a feature film. Called the Genesis Effect, the sequence showed the rebirth of a barren planet by a computer generated ‘ring of life’ that swept across the planet’s surface, creating an atmosphere and life on a planetary scale as it went.

The sequence was created by the computer graphics group at Lucasfilm, who were greatly inspired by the simulations of Jupiter and Saturn fly-bys done by Jim Blinn for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech. The Lucasfilm team, directed by Alvy Ray Smith, produced the effect using Lucasfilm’s two DEC VAX computers, two Ikonas color frame buffers, and an Evans and Sutherland Picture System vector display. The sequence, now considered a classic in computer animation and filmmaking, lasts just over one minute, and took two person-years of work to complete.


Lucasfilm produces The Road to Point Reyes

The Road to Point Reyes

One of the most significant static images in the history of computer graphics, The Road to Point Reyes is one of Lucasfilm's most important early projects. Begun in 1983, Rob Cook directed the image and conceived the scene, while Alvy Ray Smith, Loren Carpenter, Tom Porter, Bill Reeves, and David Salesin provided various elements including shading, hidden surface routines, and fractals. The single image, which Smith has described as a 'one-frame Movie,' took a month to render, and was eventually displayed at The Computer Museum in Boston.


Nintendo releases the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in the U.S.

Nintendo Entertainment System game console

Since 1983, the American electronic game market had been depressed due to a glut of poorly performing games and consoles. That same year, Nintendo released its Famicom gaming system in Japan. Renamed the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) when it was released in North America, the NES started to reverse the fortunes of the American game industry. The system launched with eighteen available titles, and was largely responsible for turning Mario the Plumber into one of the most enduring characters in the history of video games.


Pixar is founded

Entrance to Pixar Animation Studios

Pixar was originally called the Special Effects Computer Group at Lucasfilm (launched in 1979). The group created the computer-animated segments of films such as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Young Sherlock Holmes. In 1986, Apple Computer co-founder Steve Jobs paid 10 million dollars to Lucasfilm to purchase the Group and renamed it Pixar. Over the next decade, Pixar made highly successful (and Oscar-winning) animated films. It was bought by Disney in 2006.


Creative Arts releases the first SoundBlaster

Sound Blaster 1.0 box

The demand for improved graphics and sound for personal computer games encourages companies to build add-on sound cards for the IBM PC, with the SoundBlaster family of sound cards becoming the industry standard. Many of these competing cards were similar, but since the SoundBlaster had an additional game port, within a year it had become the best-selling expansion card for the IBM PC. For more than a decade, SoundBlaster cards were among the top-selling sound cards on the market.


James Cameron's The Abyss is released

Pseudopod scene from The Abyss

Director James Cameron's films The Terminator and Aliens were major science fiction successes. His follow-up film, The Abyss, stands as one of the most significant science fiction films of the 1980s. Telling the story of an oil rig team and their encounter with aliens, The Abyss featured impressive graphics for the time, but also introduced a new tool to the effects supervisor's tool chest, Photoshop. Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) used Photoshop extensively while doing the post-production work on The Abyss, including being used in the creation of the film's most famous effect – the Alien Pseudopod. The Abyss won the Academy Award for Best Special Effects in 1990.

Nintendo releases the Game Boy handheld game console

GameBoy game console

Handheld electronic games had been popular for more than a decade by the time Nintendo introduces the Game Boy. The system used removable game cartridges to play on its 2.9-inch black and white screen. Game Boy's popularity was helped by its major release title, the puzzle game Tetris. Over nearly twenty years, more than one hundred million Game Boys were sold, making it one of the all-time, top-selling game systems.


Video Toaster is introduced by NewTek

Video Toaster editing and production system

The Video Toaster is a video editing and production system for the Amiga personal computers and includes custom hardware and software. Much more affordable than any other computer-based video editing system, the Video Toaster was not only for home use. It was popular, for example, with public access stations and was even good enough to be used for broadcast television shows like Home Improvement.


Terminator 2: Judgment Day opens

Terminator 2: Judgment Day movie poster

Director James Cameron’s sequel to his 1984 hit The Terminator, features groundbreaking special effects done by Industrial Light & Magic. Made for a record $100 million, it was the most expensive movie ever made at the time. Most of this cost was due to the expense of computer-generated special effects (such as image morphing) throughout the film. Terminator 2 is one of many films that critique civilization’s frequent blind trust in technology.

JPEG standard finalized

.JPG desktop icon

In 1986, a group of international standards organizations spun-off the Joint Photographic Expert Group (JPEG) to create a set of standards for digital images. By 1992, the group had determined a set of rules for what became the jpeg (or .jpg) format. Jpeg compression allows for a trade-off between photo quality and file size. Jpeg is one of the most popular image formats, and is the format most widely used by digital cameras.


Doom is released

Doom software box

An immersive first-person shooter-style game, Doom becomes popular on many different platforms. Initially distributed via USENET newsgroups, Doom attracted a massive following. Doom players were also among the first to customize the game’s levels and appearance though ‘modding.’ Some criticized the level of violence portrayed in Doom, and it was cited as a prime reason for US Congressional hearings on video game violence in 1995. Doom spawned several sequels and a 2005 film.

Fantasy game Myst is released

Myst software box

Developed by brothers Robyn and Ryan Miller, Myst becomes one of the best-known games of the 1990s. Distributed by Broderbund for the Macintosh, Myst took the player on an adventure as The Stranger, using a magical book to track the time traveling character Atrus through the Ages of Myst. The game required players to solve puzzles and find clues to discover the nature of the island of Myst. Myst is often credited with greatly increasing the sales of CD-ROM drives for computers. The game became the best-selling personal computer game of all-time – a distinction it would hold until 2002.


Entertainment Software Rating Board

ESRB ratings

The release of violent video games such as Mortal Kombat, Night Trap, and Doom leads to a set of congressional hearings in 1992. While several companies, including Sega and 3DO, had individual, voluntary ratings systems for their games, there was no industry-wide system in place. As a measure to pre-empt the possibility of a governmental rating board being created, several of the largest game providers created the ESRB to give ratings to video games. These ratings, ranging from Early Childhood to Adults Only, are given to games as a guideline for parents and consumers, similar to those given to films by the MPAA. These ratings have led to some controversy ranging from the appropriateness of the categories themselves to the effect they have on commerce as many stores refuse to stock Adult Only games.


Sony releases the PlayStation in North America

PlayStation game console

Electronics giant Sony enters the home gaming market with the release of the PlayStation console in Japan in 1994 and in the US a few months later. Originally a disk-based gaming system, it originally started as a collaboration between Sony and console manufacturer Nintendo to create a CD-ROM-based version of their Super Nintendo gaming system. Sony continued the game system project, eventually settling on a system that would support games, as well as audio CD playback. The PlayStation was a great success, selling more than a hundred million units, setting the stage for the Sony to become a dominant player in the home gaming market.


3dfx begins selling Voodoo Graphics chips

3Dfx graphics chip

The demand for high-quality video cards for personal computers grows throughout the 1990s as game companies create games with more complex audio-visual requirements. Founded by three former Silicon Graphics employees, 3dfx designed chipsets to be used in graphics cards. Early success came in the form of arcade games using the Voodoo system, including hits like San Francisco Rush and Wayne Gretzky's 3D Ice Hockey. A failed attempted partnership with Sega to provide graphics cards for their Dreamcast game console, along with improved 3D graphics cards, led to the decline of 3dfx, which eventually sold all its intellectual property to Nvidia.


Grand Theft Auto is released

Grand Theft Auto screenshot

Created by David Jones and Mike Dailly, Grand Theft Auto is set in Liberty City, a fictional American metropolis designed after New York City. The game used a free-form structure, allowing players to do anything they wanted in the city, but also rewarding players with points for creating havoc such as running down pedestrians and completing missions. Subsequent Grand Theft Auto releases featured increased amounts of sex, drugs, and violence, leading to calls for its outright banning. The game was a huge success and was ported to many different systems.


SGI releases Maya

Maya screenshot

Silicon Graphics Incorporated (SGI) initially develops Maya as a next generation 3D animation tool, basing it on code from previous systems created by Wavefront and Alias. Maya quickly found adoption by video game and graphics industries, especially in film and television. Maya was the basis for three separate Academy Awards for Technical Achievement between 2003 and 2008.


EverQuest is released

EverQuest box cover

Inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, as well as text-based on-line Multi-User Domains (MUDs), computer game programmer John Smedley develops EverQuest, a fantasy-themed Massively Multi-player Online Role-Playing Game, or MMORPG. While beaten to market by rival Ultima On-line, EverQuest attracted nearly half-a-million players worldwide. EverQuest was also a critical success, winning awards ranging from the 1999 GameSpot Game of the Year, to a Technical and Engineering Emmy Award.

Nvidia releases the GeForce 256

nVIDIA GeForce 256 closeup

Video applications for personal computers drive demand for increased graphical performance. A new approach, one based on a processor specially designed to manipulate graphics, was initiated and the resulting product was known as a “Graphics Processing Unit,” or “GPU.” The GeForce 256 is often thought of as the first consumer GPU, and while expensive, it sold extremely well. The GeForce 256 was designed to relieve the pressure on the central processing unit (CPU) by handling graphics calculations, while the CPU processed non-graphics intensive tasks.


The Sims is released

The Sims screenshot

While most games see a player working towards an end-game scenario, The Sims allows players to create a home, get a job, and form relationships in a free-form world. Designed by a team at Maxis led by Wil Wright, The Sims took concepts from Wright's previous game Sim City. Characters controlled by the player were customizable, and spoke an artificial language called Simlish. The Sims became exceptionally popular with women, who accounted for more than sixty percent of players.

Sony releases the PlayStation 2

PlayStation 2 game console

The PlayStation 2 (PS2) represents a significant change in the concept of game consoles. The PS2 allowed for DVDs to be played as well as game disks, making it more of an entertainment console than a game console. Many consumers bought the PS2 for its DVD player alone, since the PS2 was cheaper than stand-alone DVD players. In turn, this greatly increased consumer adoption of the DVD format. Over more than ten years in active production, the PlayStation 2 has sold more than a hundred and fifty million units, making it one of the most successful game systems ever released.


Microsoft enters gaming arena with Xbox

Xbox game console

In 1998, members of Microsoft's multi-media DirectX team reconfigured old Dell laptops to create a Window-based video game console. They brought the idea to Microsoft management, which approved the idea of a home game console based on Microsoft's Direct X graphics technology. The Xbox (originally DirectX Box) used standard PC parts, including a built-in hard drive. Seen as a major risk for a software company, the Xbox console surprisingly sold out its initial North American production run. In 2002, Microsoft launched Xbox Live, an online service that allowed competitive gameplay and chat.

The Xbox was hailed for its high-quality graphics. Graphics acceleration was provided by an nVidia-Microsoft co-designed Graphical Processing Unit (GPU) which gave the Xbox the high-performance graphics usually associated with much more powerful processors.


Eve OnLine is released

Eve OnLine

Massive Multi-player Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG) begins to blossom with the advent of faster computers with ever-better graphics. Eve Online allows players to assume command of a spaceship, form alliances, and combat against other players, or the environment. It represented a new concept where skills were gained in real-time, even when a player was not logged into the game. By 2013, more than half-a-million users were regularly playing.


World of Warcraft comes on-line

World of Warcraft characters

After ten years as a series of strategy games, Blizzard Entertainment launches World of Warcraft, a Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) version of their popular Warcraft franchise. Centered on the fantasy world of Azeroth, Warcraft allows players to choose an avatar to go “questing.” Players form guilds and raiding parties, as well as form strong social, and even romantic, connections through the game’s built-in chat function. World of Warcraft has been dominant in the MMORPG market since its release.


Nintendo Wii comes to market

Nintendo Wii game console

Nintendo's Wii game system does not merely introduce new games and controllers, but new ways of interacting with game systems. The Wii Remote combined advanced gesture recognition into gaming, using accelerometer and optical sensor technologies to interact with the user. These advances allowed for games to incorporate a wide range of player physical movements. Several games came their own with specialized controllers, including Wii Fit, Wii Tennis and Wii Boxing. The Wii console also allowed access to online services providing games, news, and entertainment offerings. It has sold more than a hundred million units worldwide.


Portal is introduced

Portal box cover

Featuring complicated puzzles, a science fiction setting, and a passive-aggressive robot named GlaDOS, Portal is designed by Valve Entertainment. Players control Chell, who used an Aperture Handheld Portal Device to solve puzzles set forth by GlaDOS, who promised a non-existent cake when they are all completed. Portal spawned a highly anticipated sequel, as well as a fan base that created real world interpretations of many of the devices shown in the game.

Nvidia releases Cuda GPU

Oak Ridge National Laboratory Titan supercomputer that uses Cuda GPUs

Graphic Processing Units (GPUs) have become an important part of multimedia computing and graphics processing. Computer Unified Device Architecture (CUDA) was a concept that allowed for GPUs to do some of the functions usually reserved for the Central Processing Unit (CPU), allowing devices and software to take advantage of the multi-threaded processing techniques and scalability of GPUs. While many saw wide applications in the games industry, uses in many scientific disciplines such as in computational biology and cryptography were also significant.


Minecraft is introduced

American Museum of Natural History (Brooklyn) rendered in Minecraft

Initially developed by Swedish game designer Markus “Notch” Persson, Minecraft allows players to build towers and play challenges. The game, which could be played in either survival or creative mode, has received many awards from the international gaming press. An enormous variety of physical systems and machines can also be built in the Minecraft environment, taking the game far beyond its intended use as a simple entertainment platform into a flexible and creative building system for modeling real-world processes or things. Users have built entire computers, cities, and even planets out of Minecraft components.

Plants vs. Zombies is released

Plants vs. Zombies screenshot

Initially conceived as a game that would walk the line between gritty and sickeningly cute, programmer George Fan develops Plants vs. Zombies for PopCap Games. Influenced by 'tower defense games' where players attempt to repel attackers, Plants vs. Zombies gave players a chance to turn back an invasion of the Undead using cartoon household plants. The game was ported to many different systems, including the iPad, Steam, and PlayStation 3.


Angry Birds becomes top-selling mobile game

Angry Birds screenshot

As touchscreen-enabled tablets and smartphones proliferate, mobile games became top-sellers. In Angry Birds, players slingshot wingless birds of various kinds towards towers inhabited by green pigs in an effort to knock them to the ground. Selling for just 99 cents from an online store, Angry Birds and its sequels have had more than two billion downloads.


Microsoft introduces Xbox One

Xbox One gaming console

Microsoft had not released a new version of the Xbox for almost eight years when it introduces the Xbox One. The Kinect movement-based user interface, and streaming entertainment options such as Xbox Music and Xbox Video, were a significant part of the new system. Games were offered via Blu-ray discs, or by download from Microsoft’s Xbox Live service, though unlike most consoles, it offered no backward compatibility for earlier Xbox games.

Sony releases PlayStation 4

PlayStation 4 game console

The PlayStation 4 (PS4) is seen as a bold new step for Sony in the game market. Sony chose AMD's x86-64 Accelerated Processing Unit to serve as both central processing unit and graphics processing unit, built together onto on a single chip. Interactivity was at the forefront of the design for the PS4, including PlayStation Now, a cloud-based gaming service that could stream video from the internet, and a controller featuring a share button, allowing players to view each others’ game play.