Digital Revolution in five objects

Published 3 July 2014

From the first £100 computer to a 100-million-user community – we tell the story of the digital revolution in five key objects.

1. Pong, 1972

Perfect in its simplicity, Pong was the game that spawned an industry. A simplified game of tennis, in which players attempt to reflect a square 'ball' with a rectangular 'paddle', it was the first computer game to break out into the mainstream. (Breakout, a derivative of Pong created by Apple founders Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, was released four years later.) For many people who grew up in the 1970s, the sight of a Pong arcade cabinet was their first encounter with the nascent digital revolution.

2. Sinclair ZX80, 1980

In the early days of the digital revolution, computers were prohibitively expensive, placing a high barrier to entry for any aspiring programmers. The Sinclair ZX80 changed that. Retailing for £99.95 on its release in 1980, it was the first computer available in the United Kingdom for less than £100 pounds (a kit form could be bought for only £79.95, the equivalent of £290 in today's money). Low-cost programmable computers like the ZX80 gave birth to a generation of coders. Its spirit lives on in the £29.99 Raspberry Pi, a coaster-sized computer created as a means for people to learn programming.

3. Linn LM-1, 1980

The eighties also saw the emergence of digital technology into the musical mainstream. The earliest breakthroughs were made in drum machines, as the short, self-contained sounds of percussion offered an easier target for emulation than other instruments. The Linn LM-1 was the first machine to employ digital sampling – recordings of acoustic drumsets stored digitally – and despite its high cost (early units sold for $4,995) it quickly found success among the emerging generation of musicians, from Kraftwerk to Gary Numan.

4., 1991

In the late 1980s, Tim Berners-Lee – a fellow at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research – saw the potential in bringing together several existing technologies, including the 'Internet' and 'hyperlinks', to create a world-wide 'web' of documents. In 1991 he created his first webpage, describing his 'wide-area hypermedia information retrieval initiative' that would eventually change the world. In 2013, CERN found the earliest copy of the web page that it could find and restored it to its original address. In a Q&A session to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web, Berners-Lee said that his biggest surprise was seeing how many people used his invention to share pictures of kittens.

5. Minecraft, 2009

​Created by a Swedish programmer called Markus Persson (better known by his screen name, 'Notch'), Minecraft is a microcosm of the digital world: not just a game, but a creative tool with a world-wide community of over 100 million users. The concept is simple: a player starts life in a randomly generated world populated by cubes of different materials, without any fixed goals or structure, and can shape the landscape through mining and crafting blocks. The 'make your own goals' nature of Minecraft has led to a wide range of projects being created: one dedicated player built a functioning computer within the game, transistor by transistor, while the Danish government paid a team to recreate the entire country. Perhaps inevitably, within a few days of the digital Denmark being opened up to the public, it had been invaded and destroyed by American players.

Digital Revolution is at the Barbican until 14 September 2014. Get reduced price entry with a National Art Pass.

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