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Computers, in whatever form, can be found everywhere today. But where does what we commonly call a “computer” come from? The opulently designed volume “The Computer” from Taschen-Verlag explains.

Review by Helge Aszmoneit

Advertisement for the iMac, 1998, © Courtesy of Apple

How naturally we surround ourselves today with so-called digital products, be it in the form of hardware or software. But where does what we commonly call a “computer” come from? What actually is a computer? The opulent volume published by Taschen Verlag and edited by Jens Müller and Julius Wiedemann, „The Computer. A history from the 17th century to today“, published by Taschen Verlag, immerses us in this very history. Nevertheless, even the authors are unable to give a simple definition, as they clearly state; the development that this special product has undergone is too complex.

From the First Calculating Machines to the Smartphone

In 1953, an employee at the NACA Langley Research Center posed for a press photo with manometer tape, containing programming for a Bell computer. © NASA

Nevertheless, the book takes its readers on an exciting journey through this history – from the first calculating machines from the 17th century to fascinating automata and machines that looked like people or animals, from the first devices for telephony and wall-filling mainframe computers to special applications such as a chess computer.

The journey continues via office computers, the personal computer, game consoles, applications in medicine or music to the internet and the mobile telephone, which in the form of a smartphone has long since become more than just a “device” with which you can call someone. All these developmental steps are traced by means of a large number of illustrations of the corresponding devices, many of which even the experienced reader has never seen before.

More than the Story of a Device

Now, the history of the computer is by no means the history of only one device, or rather: hardware. Every technological development has always had and continues to have an impact on our everyday lives, on culture, in this case on photography and film, on advertising, visual communication and other areas more. So it is great that “testimonies of impact” are also placed alongside the devices of the respective time: Magazine covers, advertisements, cinema posters, film stills, artworks or photographs from companies and offices showing men and women working on computers. A scene from Fritz Lang’s silent film “Metropolis” belongs to this series, as does a 1955 cover of “Time” magazine with Thomas J. Watson Jr. of IBM on the cover. An advertisement by the American company RCA (Radio Corporation of America) from 1964 shows the interior of a car complete with instrument panel, packed with electronic devices and the slogan “How RCA Transistors will run your “Electronic” Car of Tomorrow”. The legendary poster for IBM designed by Paul Rand in 1981 – “Eye Bee M” – is also not missing.


The series can be continued up to the present day – and therein lies the charm of this book: readers who have experienced a few decades of development will experience déjà vu here and there, but will also discover previously unknown objects and connections. Younger readers will have the chance to immerse themselves in this so complex history of technology and culture, to learn and to be inspired. With its almost 500 pages, a page length of 38 centimetres and a weight of a good four (!) kilograms, the volume is not easy to “handle” or even to put in one’s jacket pocket. But it is worth taking a close look at it.


The Computer. A History from the 17th Century to Today

Jens Müller, Julius Wiedemann (Hg.)

472 p., hardcover, 24.6 x 37.2 cm, numerous ill,
Texts English, German, French,
Taschen Verlag, Cologne 2023
60,00 Euro

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