History of Computing: How the Computer Became Personal
New York University
Professors: Laine Nooney + Tega Brain.
See the full syllabus


This course explores how historical and cultural knowledge can be enriched through hands-on technological practice, and deepens an aesthetic exploration of digital media through greater awareness of the historical materiality of computer technology. The course will alternate between seminars offering historical analysis, lecture and discussion of aspects of computer history, and labs offering technical instruction and hands on experimentation with some of these tools and technologies. Meeting once per week, this course’s readings and activities move students from the innermost workings of the computer through to the implications of its outermost cultural forms and materiality, with a historical focus on the computer’s development from the mid-1970s to the late-1980s.


Unit 1: Tinkering and Processing

February 6: Homebrew and the Counterculture: Origins of Personal Computing

How did the computer move from the laboratory to the garage? This unit looks at the hobbyists and homebrew origins of the earliest microcomputers form the mid 1970s. In-Class Historical Artifacts Analysis: Whole Earth Catalog; Homebrew Computer Club Newsletter Issue #6 August 20, 1975; Dr Dobb's Journal of Computer Calisthenics & Orthodontia February 1976.
Additional Reading:

February 13: From 0-1: An Intro to Electronics and Binary Logic

This hands-on lab introduces students to the basics of electricity, circuits and binary logic.
Additional Reading:

Unit Two: Chips, Bits and Bytes

February 20: Beyond Hackers and Hobbyists: The Computer Goes Home

How does the idea of the personal computer transition from being a highly technical device to an appliance that non-programmers felt comfortable having in their own home? In-Class Historical Artifacts Analysis: Apple II/IIe (1977, 1983); Apple IIc (1984); Computers for Everybody: 1984 Buyer’s Guide; Apple II advertising (late 70s-early 1980s).
Additional Reading:

February 27: Counting, Encoding & Decoding

This hands-on lab introduces students to the BASIC programming language. We will also overview binary and hexadecimal numbers and character encoding systems such as ASCII.
Additional Reading:

Unit 3: Software Foundations

This unit explores the role of software and software systems. What is the impact of the mainstreaming of an operating system like MSDOS have in terms of standardization across the industry?

March 6: Compilers, Interpreters & Operating Systems with guest lecturer Ramsey Nasser

Unit 4:Input/Output

March 13: Desktops and Peripherals

This unit thinks beyond the computer itself and considers the ways it exceeded its own form through peripherals like the mouse and the printer. What were the cultural norms that shaped these interactions? In-Class Historical Artifacts Analysis: Apple Macintosh w/ Mouse (1984); Apple Imagewriter II (1985)
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March 20: Spring Break!

March 27: Arduino, Microcontrollers and Serial Communications

Hands on lab introducing the possibilities microcontrollers offer for designing computer peripherals.
Additional Reading:

Unit 5: The Body Computational

April 3: Use, Design and the Body

How has the computer impacted the body? How have bodies had to change to accommodate life with computers? In-Class Historical Artifacts Analysis: Home Offices and Workspaces (1986); INMAC Office Supply Catalog 1984; Roy Mason, Xanadu: The Computerized Home of Tomorrow and How it Can Be Yours Today! Acropolis Books (1983).
Additional Reading:

April 10: Pitch Presentations and Next Steps

In-Class Pitch Brief Due
Annotated Bibliography Due

Unit 6: The Computer Supply Chain

How has computation impacted environments and shaped global supply chains?

April 17: E-Waste Field Trip

Field trip to the Gowanas E-waste Center run by Lower East Side Ecology Center. Additional Reading

April 24: 1st Prototypes and In-Class Crit

May 1: Guest Artist and Project Checkup

May 8: Final Presentations

Final artifact due and final project written documentation due.