The history of tech in the month of November has a couple of themes. Microsoft released two of its most well-known products this month. And the history of malware also sees two significant firsts. Read all the details below.
November 1st, 1984: Lenovo Founded
November 3rd, 1988: Cyber Worm Decimates the Internet
November 10th, 1983: The First Computer Virus
November 15th, 2001: Original Xbox Hits Store Shelves
November 20th, 1985: Microsoft Releases Windows
November 21st, 1877: Thomas Edison Announces the Phonograph
November 23rd, 2004: World of Warcraft Released
November 29th, 1972: Atari Introduces Pong
Like many of its Silicon Valley counterparts like Apple and Hewlett Packard, China’s largest computer manufacturer has humble beginnings. While founder Liu Chuanzhi didn’t start Legend Group (later renamed Lenovo) in his garage, he and a small group of researchers and developers from the Chinese Academy of Science began the company in a room not much larger than one.
However, the beginnings of Lenovo didn’t have the same entrepreneurial atmosphere found in capitalist California to thrive in. In fact, Liu admitted in a 1997 interview that he was ambivalent about starting a privately-held company in communist China in 1984. “The lowest thing you could do in the early ’80s, as a scientist, was to go into business. China had a strict planned economy, and there was barely room for a freewheeling company like ours,” he said.
Nevertheless, Liu secured a small loan from the Chinese Academy of Science for the venture. He said of the first days of Lenovo, “We were totally immersed in the environment of a planned economy. I didn’t care that the investment was small, but I knew I must have control over finances, human resources, and decision-making.” Liu claimed that watching American companies, particularly Hewlett Packard, inspired and guided the early days of Lenovo.
The investment paid off, but not for a few years. Lenovo’s first business venture of importing television sets failed within a year. And the company shifted focus to developing circuit boards that could process Chinese language characters, which would be its first commercial success. Today, Lenovo is the world’s largest manufacturer of personal computers.
Although what came to be known as the “Morris Worm” wasn’t the first piece of malware to hit the internet, it the first to literally decimate the internet. When the worm it the net, it replicated itself so many times that 10% of online computers crashed.
The worm’s author, Robert Tappan Morris, later claimed that he was trying to gauge the size of the internet, which had been growing rapidly over the 80s. At the time, there were an estimated 60,000 internet-connected computers and an estimated 6,000 taken down by Morris Worm. Although those numbers are in dispute, nobody knows with any certainty the raw number of machines connected to the nascent internet at the time.
In his attempt to map the internet, Morris was too clever by half in his programming. He anticipated that network administrators might attempt to stymie the worm’s spread and program it to self-replicate no matter once every 14th time it found a new host. Accidentally ensuring that hundreds of copies of the program would install itself on many machines, causing an overload and crash.
Morris became the first person charged under the recently passed Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. A federal court sentenced him to three years probation and ordered him to pay fines totaling $13,326.
It’s impossible to know what the first piece of malware was, but like with the first computer worm, we can know which are the firsts that came to public attention. In the case of the computer virus, that honor goes to the man who made the program that inspired the term “virus”: Fred Cohen.
The USC graduate student demonstrated his proof-of-concept virus by introducing it into the Unix command of a mainframe computer in front of an audience at a security seminar at the University of Pennsylvania. Within five minutes, he had control of the system. Subsequent demonstrations were also able to wrest control of a computer system by bypassing all security measures they contained.
Cohen penned his research paper Computer Viruses — Theory and Experiments a year later. It was the first work to specifically name self-replicating malware as “viruses.” In 1987, Cohen released a paper stating that it would be impossible to detect all computer viruses perfectly. This prediction remains true since antivirus software still needs to be regularly updated to stay effective against new threats.
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, three brands dominated the world video gaming industry: Nintendo, PlayStation, and Sega. Microsoft upset that balance in late 2001 when the Xbox came on the scene.
The console was the result of Microsoft’s success with PC gaming. Popular titles such as Microsoft Flight Simulator and Age of Empires motivated the software giant to move into gaming hardware. And that motivation was given an added push when Bill Gates started viewing the upcoming PlayStation 2 as a threat to Windows computers.
In 1998, Microsoft created a special team to develop the console. The group took the code name “Midway” after the World War II battle, where the American forces defeated the Japanese Navy in the Pacific Ocean, as a metaphor for an American company taking down the dominant Japanese firm in the worldwide video game market. While the name was apt, the results didn’t match the historical naval engagement. By the time the Playstation 2 and the original Xbox were discontinued, the consoles sold 155 million and 24 million units, respectively.
Nevertheless, Xbox put Microsoft on the gaming console map. Several iterations of the Xbox followed in the coming years, including Xbox 360, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X and Series S.
Of all the products Microsoft is known for, the most important is Windows. The company had been interested in developing a graphical user interface ever since Bill Gates and others witnessed a demonstration of the technology in 1982 on the short-lived Visi On operating system. The following year, Gates and the company learned that Apple’s Macintosh would have a substantially more advanced GUI and began developing ways to make their offering unique. Gates hired software engineer Scott A. McGregor to lead the Windows 1.0 project.
The first version of the operating system wasn’t even an operating system. Rather, it was an interface that ran on top of MS-DOS. It would take over a decade for Windows to become an operating system in its own right and not rely on MS-DOS to be the primary operating system for a computer. Nevertheless, Windows provided huge benefits over the text base operating environments that came before, even if it didn’t match the high standards set by Macintosh. When Windows 1.0 hit store shelves in 1985, it contained many programs and features we recognize and still use today, like Calculator, Paint, Notepad, and Clipboard.
Sales of the would-be King of computer operating systems topped out at 500,000 units. Not the runaway success Microsoft was hoping for. But the future was bright for Windows, which would eventually become the most used operating system in history. Today, over 75% of desktop computers run some variant of Windows.
Thomas Edison has a long list of inventions credited to his name. One of the most impactful is the Phonograph: an instrument that records sound for playback. Edison came upon this invention by mistake.
He was actually trying to find a way to record telephone calls at his lab in Melo Park. His experiments revealed that if you record sound vibrations as a waveform, then imprint them on a wax cylinder, and then play them back using a stylus, you can recreate the original sound. This method remains the basis of all sound recording and production today, particularly the audio waveform.
The device that Edison premiered at his announcement was a far cry from what we would recognize as a record player. It wasn’t until the graphophone’s invention in the 1880s and the innovation of the flat record disc in the 1890s that the Phonograph began to resemble what people today would recognize as something they could listen to the White Album on.
Edison played Mary Had a Little Lamb on his invention at its first outing. The Phonograph is considered one of Edison’s most remarkable creations. It, along with Edison’s other inventions, the motion picture camera, and the electric lightbulb, constituted the birth of audio/video media.
When Blizzard released World of Warcraft, it wasn’t immediately apparent that the game belonged in the Warcraft series. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Warcraft was a fun strategy game that pittled Orcs against Humans in the fictional lands of Azeroth and Lorderon. However, these games focused on commanding high fantasy armies, gathering resources, building fortifications, etc. They were successful games, but there were many others like them. Blizzard even had a science fiction spinoff of Warcraft called Starcraft.
The Warcraft franchise looked to the recent success of the emerging game genre: MMORPG, which stands for Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. Titles like Everquest, Star Wars Galaxies, and Rune Scape had found commercial success with their sandbox-style open world that let the players do whatever they wanted rather than play through a predetermined storyline. Those elements, plus millions of players in the same game simultaneously, were a revolution for gaming that Warcraft was about to take center stage in.
Blizzard’s strategy was a smashing success. World of Warcraft was the best-selling PC game of both 2005 and 2006. By January 2008, the game had over 10 million subscribers and over 100 million accounts created by 2014. World of Warcraft is considered one of the greatest video games of all time and still dominates the MMORPG genre today with 121 million players.
When newly-hired Atari engineer, Allan Alcorn, wrote Pong, he had never programmed a video game before. His employer, Adobe founder Nolan Bushnell, had just hired Alcorn for his electrical engineering and computer science experience and assigned him to program Pong as a training exercise. The instructions were simple. The game needed to include a moving dot, two paddles, and numerals for keeping score.
After examining schematics for the company’s previous game and finding them unusable due to his lack of experience, he relied on his knowledge of transistor-transistor logic to develop the game. He completed his assignment as instructed with a few innovations of his own. Alcorn added the ability to change the dot’s angle of return, plus he programmed the dot to increase its speed while it remained in play. Both additions increased the game’s playability and competitiveness.
Bushnell was so impressed at the quality of his new employee’s game that he decided to develop it for production. After a few months of development, he began test marketing it in local bars in Sunnyvale, California. Bushnell installed the first Pong machine at Andy’s Capp’s Tavern in August 1972. A few days later, Bushnell was called back into the bar because the machine broke down, turns out the coin mechanism was overflowing with quarters. The game was a hit.
And it would go on to be an even bigger hit. Atari would sell Pong in multiple forms, including arcade cabinets, dedicated home consoles, cartridge games, and more. Versions of the game are still being sold and played today. Pong‘s cultural impact would earn one of its arcade cabinets a spot in the Smithsonian Institute’s permanent collection.