The Inspiration for the Desktop Computer? The Telephone

In his recent book on the history of the mp3, Jonathan Sterne argues that sound technologies—especially the telephone—played a critical role in the development of digital technologies. Telephony is “central” to digital history, he writes, “as an industry, as a set of practices, as an aesthetic field, and as a medium.”1 He goes on to explain how the telephonic research impacted sound recording:

Each major technical iteration of sound recording made use of telephone research: the first phonographs were built in labs funded by telephonic (and telegraphic) research; the first electrical recording and playback technologies were borrowed from innovations in telephone systems in the 1920s; and digital audio recording and playback also used concepts that emerged from AT&T’s research wing, Bell Labs, beginning in the 1920s.2

This weekend, I was surprised to learn that the idea of the telephone was also central to the development of the desktop computer. On Saturday, Time magazine debuted a previously unseen video of Steve Jobs introducing the Macintosh to the Boston Computer Society on January 30, 1984. In it, Jobs explicitly says that the idea for a desktop computer was inspired by the telephone. Around the 12-minute mark of the vide, Jobs says:

We look at the telephone and we’re really impressed with the telephone, because it was the first and really the only desk appliance. To be a desk appliance you have to do something really useful, and you have to be really easy to use so people don’t have to spend a lot of time learning how to use this thing, and you have to be really cheap. We don’t think there has been a desk appliance since the telephone. And what we want to is make Macintosh the second desk appliance.

In the article that accompanies the video, Harry McCracken notes that this is a metaphor that Jobs expanded upon in a later interview with Playboy, comparing IBM to the telegraph and the Mac to the telephone:

[The telephone] was a breakthrough, because people already knew how to use it. It performed the same basic function [as the telegraph], but with radical ease of use. And in addition to just letting you type in the words or click in the words, it let you sing. It let you intone your sentences to really get your meaning across.

McCracken somewhat dismissively labels these statements “hyper-dramatic” and “self-serving,” but I think they point to the deep relationship between sound and digital technologies—a relationship that perhaps goes even deeper than we thought.

  1. Jonathan Sterne, MP3: The Meaning of a Format (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 2. 

  2. Ibid., 3.

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