7 Incredible Documentaries on the History of Computing

There’s a lot to tell when it comes to how computers became what they are. These documentaries will give you a head start.
Image credit: Matthew Mech/Unsplash

If you’re reading this, you’re using a computer. Well, you are unless someone printed this out and handed it to you, but that is highly unlikely. Let’s just assume you’re using a computer.

Computers are ubiquitous now, so much so that it can be easy to forget how we got here and what the world was like before them. If you have any curiosity about how computers came to be and how we got to here from there, you’re bound to love at least one of these documentaries.

1. Silicon Cowboys

In the early 1980s, you basically had two options when it came to an easy to use personal computer: the Apple II and the IBM PC. At least, that was until Compaq came along. This documentary tells the story of how Compaq reverse-engineered the IBM PC and in the process, almost singlehandedly created the PC market we know today.

2. Revolution OS

From 2001, Revolution OS tells the story on Linux and the GNU software that actually make the operating system usable. Featuring interviews with Linux creator Linus Torvalds and other prominent open source figures, this documentary shows why people care so much about this free operating system.

3. Triumph of the Nerds

Triumph of the Nerds is a PBS production made for TV in 1996, and it looks like it. If you can get past the dated look, this is a great glimpse of the rise of the personal computer made while it was still happening. This three-part miniseries does a surprisingly good job of compressing the history of the personal computer into three 45 minute segments.

4. Once Upon Atari

Hosted by developer Howard Scott Warshaw, Once Upon Atari takes an insider view at what the life of the developers making games for Atari was like. If you’re a fan of retro gaming in any way, shape, or form, this is a lesser-known documentary that you need to see. If all you think of when you think of Atari is the infamous ET landfill story, this will give you much more backstory.

5. Nerds 2.0.1

While Triumph of the Nerds focused on the growth of the personal computer, Nerds 2.0.1, also made by PBS in the 1990s, narrows its focus on something arguably more important: the internet. Alternating between the history of the internet and pre dot com bubble startups (many of whom are no longer around), Nerds 2.0.1 is a great follow-up to Triumph of the Nerds.

6. Code Rush

Speaking of the internet, while it has been eclipsed in popularity by Chrome, Firefox is still a prominent browser that you’re probably at least somewhat aware of. Code Rush tells the story of how the team behind the Netscape browser open-sourced the codebase of that browser, leading to the Mozilla project that eventually made Firefox possible.

7. Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview

Much more footage was filmed than was actually used in the making of Triumph of the Nerds, especially interview footage. After Steve Jobs’ death in 2011, Nerds host Robert X. Cringely set out to obtain and eventually release the entire interview he conducted as Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview. Whether you’re a fan of Jobs and Apple or not, this is essential viewing.

Need More Nerdy Documentaries?

If you’re like me, you’ve seen most of or even all of the documentaries on this list. Don’t worry though, as this is just the beginning. dWe’ve also got a list of books on computers and technology that you need to read.

Maybe you don’t feel like reading. Hey, nobody here is going to blame you. If you want to kick back on the couch, take a look at our list of documentaries about geek culture.

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