Fifty years ago, the word “computer” had a very different meaning. Prior to World War II, the word referred not to machines, but to people (mostly women in order to save costs) hired as human calculators. During the war, military research spawned mechanical calculators, “computers” such as Colossus and ENIAC; afterward, IBM commercialized equally intimidating, multi-million dollar machines that required their own rooms. They shipped to some of the largest companies in the nation, where they were tended to by specialists. In the popular imagination they were recognized symbols of bureaucracy and dehumanization — the dictatorial Alpha 60 in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, for example, and the domineering EPICAC in Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano — and there was no such thing as a “personal computer.”

But by the late-1960’s that began to change. What happened was not simply the advance of technology (though that helped), but a change in philosophy: a revolution in thinking. If Colossus and ENIAC had been data processors, essentially hypertrophic calculators, researchers and hobbyists of the time saw the potential for something else, something new. Members of the first generation to really grow up with computers, whether home-built or laboratory-bought, a few saw them as more than just oversized arithmetic devices. They saw the dawning of new medium for communication, and machines that didn’t have to reinforce bureaucracy. Instead, they could empower individuals. They could be truly personal computers.

Of course, most people didn’t see such possibility in the green-hued terminals of the 1960’s. But among those who did were Douglas Engelbart, who, believing he’d accomplished all his engineering career goals at 25, devoted himself to enriching mankind through technology; and Alan Kay, who to a less-visionary superior once famously quipped, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” With other like-minded souls they paved the way for Jobs and Gates and the world that came after. They did, in fact, invent the future.