The very last year of the 19th century saw the invention of radio—at the time called the “wireless telegraph”—by the Italian-Irish inventor Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937). Twenty-one years later, Pittsburgh’s station KDKA made what is generally considered the first commercial radio broadcast in the United States (an announcement of election results), and electronic mass media was born. In 1933, a Russian-born American engineer for RCA, Vladimir Zworykin (1889-1982), having invented and patented in 1925 the “iconoscope” (basis of the modern “picture tube”), broadcast a television image over a radio-wave relay between New York and Philadelphia. It took well over a decade for the new medium to catch on with the American public, but in 1948, when an ex-vaudeville comic named Milton Berle (b. 1908) began cavorting across the small screen (often attired in drag), Americans got hooked. Berle’s Texaco Star Theater dominated the airwaves through 1956, sales of TV sets soared, more programming was developed, and television became the dominant American entertainment medium. Soon, it also displaced the newspaper as the dominant news medium as well.
Radio and television are essentially one-way media, broadcasting to a passively receptive audience. The development of the personal computer, especially as linked to other computers through such networks as the vast Internet, represents an emerging interactive medium, in which there may be many parties in an exchange of entertainment, news, and information.
The modern personal computer has its most direct origins in the “analytical engine” invented by Thomas Babbage and Lady Lovelace in 1822-37, in computational theory developed by the British mathematician Alan Turing in the 1930s, and in ENIAC, the first electronic computer, unveiled at the University of Pennsylvania in 1946. From that time until the 1970s, computers were big and expensive, requiring a team of experts to program and to operate. In the 1970s, a number of companies introduced much smaller and cheaper computers, which could fit on a desktop, and, on August 12, 1981, IBM introduced the PC-personal computer—the first truly practical desktop machine. Since then, the machines have grown cheaper and more powerful each year, and one is hard pressed to find a desk—in offices as well as homes—that doesn’t sport a PC.