Computer Monitors Through History

by Bridget Conway

Computer monitors have gone through a striking evolution since their invention in the 1970s.  The speed of this evolution is an excellent example of the speed at which the world moves in its recent centuries. Many people today do not appreciate the ease with which they are able to interact with their devices, as this was not always the case.  From punch cards to touchscreens, the computer monitor has become an incredibly personal invention.

The first computers in the 1950s did not have, or need, monitors.  Very early computers would communicate with their users through a series of blinking lights.  Models in the later 1950s used punch cards more than lights, and this paper form of communication became the norm.  The user would interact with the computer by using these cards to have a simple input-output exchange.  This process left a lot of work to be done by the user, as inputting the correct information and deciphering the computer’s output were often challenging, or at least tedious, tasks.

A used punch card.

In the early 1960s, cathode ray tubes (CRTs) emerged as the first computer monitors, though CRT technology was invented by Karl Ferdinand Braun in 1897. CRTs were vacuum tubes with one end coated with phosphors. When electrons would strike the phosphorus tubes, they would emit light, and thus an image could be displayed. Initially, CRTs displayed only images; as computers developed, text became a common output as well. As new computer monitors developed, alternate display technologies were invented, a prominent example being the liquid crystal display (LCD). This type of display was popular in calculators and wristwatches of the 1970s, as they were lightweight and energy-efficient. This quote from the University of New Mexico's Dr. Thomas E. Beach's article "Input and Output Devices" explains the workings of LCD monitors very well: "The LCD consists of several thin layers that polarize the light passing through them. The polarization of one layer, containing long thin molecules called liquid crystals, can be controlled electronically at each pixel, blocking varying amounts of the light to make a pixel lighter or darker."
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Examples of CRTs from the 1950s-60s.

In the early 1980s, IBM released its first personal computers, the monitors of which were bulky and displayed very limited colors. The actual computer was separate from the monitor; the computer would connect to the monitor through a cable, and transmit information in that way. The first Macintosh was released in 1984, and displayed in only black and white. Three years later, the Macintosh II introduced color monitors.
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The first IBM personal computer.


The first Macintosh computer.

Desktop LCD monitors became popular in 1997; they existed earlier, but could not compete with their CRT counterparts because of their high prices and comparatively low performance. In 1997, however, ViewSonic, IBM, and Apple released desktop LCD monitors which were affordable, less bulky, used less electricity, and generated less heat than competing CRTs. Also in the late 90s, Apple released a visually appealing computer, the iMac, in a rainbow of colors. These computers are an example of "all-in-one" computers: The computer is located in the monitor.

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Apple's "all-in-one" iMacs from 1998.

In recent years, monitors have reached a new level of quality and performance. Screens are now high definition, 4K, retina, etc. Most people expect what is displayed on their computer screens to look incredible, as that is the capability of modern monitors.


The Microsoft Surface Pro 4.

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The Apple MacBook Pro.

Computer monitors are a type of peripheral. Learn about peripherals here!

Computer monitors work with the other parts of the computer, especially the optical drive, to know what to display. Learn about the optical drive here!

Without a power supply, no part of a computer, including the monitor, can function. Learn about the power supply here!

Works Cited:

Edwards, Benji. “A Brief History of Computer Displays.” PCWorld. IDG Consumer & SMB. 1 Nov. 2016. (web). 17 Nov. 2016

Lee, Kevin. “The History of Computer Monitors.” Techwalla. Leaf Group. N.d. (web). 17 Nov. 2016

“Timeline of Computer History.” Computer History Museum. Computer History Museum. N.d. (web). 18 Nov. 2016.

Walden, Stephanie. “Tech Time Machine:  Screens and Displays.” Mashable. Mashable. Inc. 2015. (web). 18 Nov. 2016.