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This Month in Tech History: May

A calendar turned to the month of May

The month of May contains several milestones in the history of technology. From the revival of Apple’s desktop line to a landmark lawsuit against Microsoft, the birth of telecommunication as we know it, and the release of two of the most influential video games ever. Read on for the details.

May 1, 1964: BASIC Launched

The BASIC programming language holds a special place in the hearts of millions of computer users of a certain age. In the 70s and 80s, BASIC’s easy-to-use nature introduced computer science to anyone willing to learn.

Created by Dartmouth College professors John G. Kemeny and Thomas E. Kurtz, they intended BASIC to make computer programming accessible to students who were not pursuing degrees in STEM fields. They first implemented the programming language in 1964 on a time-sharing operating system, allowing multiple users to access a computer’s processing power via separate terminals.

From there, BASIC found a home in the minicomputing market, where it helped spur the growth of text-based computer games, laying the foundations for the coming video game industry. When the personal computer revolution started to gain steam, many computer manufacturers included a BASIC interpreter with every machine. Thus, BASIC became the go-to programming language for millions of budding software developers. And even though it’s become a nostalgic memory for most, it remains an excellent choice for students to learn the basics of programming before moving on to more complex languages.

May 6, 1998: Apple Announces the iMac

An original iMac from 1998 in blue

One of Steve Jobs’ top priorities upon returning to Apple in 1997 was to revive the company’s dying computer line. Just over a year later, he announced the iMac at a special event at De Anza College in Cupertino. The iMac replaced the Macintosh Performa and Power Macintosh as Apple’s flagship desktop offering. Jobs described the iMac as “the marriage of the excitement of the internet with the simplicity of Macintosh.”

The iMac was the first Apple product to use the “i” moniker. In his keynote address, Jobs explained that “i” stands for “internet, individual, instruct, inform, and inspire.” By any measurement, iMac excelled in all these categories. And it was a smash hit with computer lovers and Apple fans who had been patiently sticking with the company through a rocky 1990s.

The original iMac sold more than five million units in less than three years, marking the beginning of Apple’s comeback and setting the stage for more world-changing devices like the iPod, iPhone, iPad, and more.

May 12, 1936: Dvorak Keyboard Layout Patented

The QWERTY keyboard layout is used on virtually every computer in the English-speaking world. However, it isn’t the only layout available. In the early 1900s, August Dvorak regarded QWERTY as inefficient for typing and prone to generating typos.

Dvorak and his brother-in-law William Dealey spent 14 years developing a keyboard layout optimized for speed, accuracy, and comfort to correct these problems. The central element of the design is placing the most commonly used keys on the home row, thus requiring far fewer finger movements. In the 1960s, Dvorak developed one-handed versions of the layout for both the left and right hands.

Although Dvorak and Dealey didn’t succeed in replacing QWERTY, their layout wasn’t a flop either. It garnered enough adoption to survive and adapt throughout the 20th century. It’s the only non-QWERTY English language keyboard layout included in today’s desktop operating systems. And it continues to have a dedicated user-base of acolytes keeping it alive.

May 17, 2009: Minecraft Released to Public

A village in 'Minecraft'

The best-selling video game of all time, Minecraft, made its public debut after just a week of development and private testing. Its creator, Markus Persson, was inspired to make the game by playing Infiniminer with co-workers. Minecraft‘s sandbox setting and open-world made it attractive to players interested in building a whole world for themselves. Over the next two years, Persson refined the game based on feedback from test players. After several development versions, the game was ready for prime time and officially released on November 18th, 2011.

But the game was a hit even before its full release. It sold more than a million copies less than a month after its beta release in early 2011. By its official release, the game had more than 16 million registered users. And within three years, it would sell more copies than any video game in history. Today, Minecraft has sold more than 238 million copies.

May 18, 1998: Microsoft Sued for Antitrust Violations

In 1998 the United States Department of Justice filed a landmark complaint against the software behemoth for violating the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. The complaint alleged that Microsoft used its monopoly position in the PC market to prop up its web browser, Internet Explorer, by bundling it with the Windows operating system.

The suit came on the heels of the browser wars of the 1990s in which Internet Explorer emerged victorious over Netscape Navigator. Including Internet Explorer for free with Windows as an essential weapon Microsoft used to eviscerate Netscape’s market share throughout the ’90s.

Although the Justice Department filed the complaint in 1998, the trial wasn’t held until 2001. The judge found that Microsoft committed monopolization that violated antitrust law and recommended breaking up the company. However, an appeals court later overturned this ruling. Eventually, Microsoft settled with the Justice Department by promising to reform its anti-competitive business practices.

May 22, 1980: Happy Birthday, Pac-Man!

A close-up of a 'Pac-Man' arcade machine
Roman Belogorodov/Shutterstock.com

One of the most influential and successful arcade games of all time, Pac-Man, was designed by Toru Iwatani to appeal to male and female gamers. And it worked. Its simple design and fun gameplay meant anyone could enjoy it.

Pac-Man smashed long-time arcade favorites like Space Invaders and Asteroids and became the top-performing arcade game in both the United States and Japan by the end of 1980. By 1982 more than 400,000 Pac-Man units shipped to arcades worldwide and collected billions of dollars in quarters.

Its success in the arcade led to the game making a splash in the up-and-coming video game console and PC gaming markets. Namco created ports of the game for every platform from Apple and Atari to Commodore, Nintendo, and more. And Pac-Man continues to go on strong today; it’s available on iOS, Android, Xbox, Playstation, and more. If you have any gaming device, there’s a high probability you can play Pac-Man on it.

May 24, 1844: First Telegraph Transmission in Morse Code

Before Twitter, the internet, email, the television, the telephone, and even radio, there was the telegraph. Telegraphy was the world’s first truly long-range communication technology. With roots dating back to the 1700s, the optical telegraph relied on visual signals relayed through a series of towers that dotted the European countryside. It wasn’t until the invention of the electric telegraph in the 1830s that the technology took on a form that we would recognize today as an early form of telecommunications.

However, it required a specialized code to transmit messages succinctly and effectively. Samuel Morse and fellow inventors Joseph Henry and Alfred Vail stepped in to fill this need by developing Morse code. The simple substitution cipher allowed telegraph operators to tap out messages that traveled hundreds of miles nearly instantaneously, revolutionizing human communication forever.

The first Morse code telegraph message was sent by Morse himself from the United States Capitol to Vail, who received it at the B&O Railroad Depot in Baltimore, about 40 miles away. Morse chose a quote from the Old Testament, “What hath God wrought,” to inaugurate a new age of technology.

Danny Chadwick Danny Chadwick
Danny has been a technology journalist since 2008. He served as senior writer, as well as multimedia and home improvement editor at Top Ten Reviews until 2019. Since then, he has been a freelance contributor to Lifewire and ghostwriter for Fit Small Business. His work has also appeared on Laptop Mag, Tom’s Guide, and business.com. Read Full Bio »