By David Kurlander

Time magazine last month named billionaire tech entrepreneur Elon Musk its 2021 Person of the Year. The choice sparked debate over the morality of Musk’s SEC-baiting  stunts and Twitter outbursts, even as Time reminded readers that the selection was simply a reflection of Musk’s societal impact, “for better or worse.” In “Historians Have Their Heroes,” the last Now & Then episode of 2021, Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman used their own queasiness with Musk’s selection as a trigger to define American heroism. Time’s selection engendered a similar conversation in December 1982, when the magazine opted to forego humans and select “the computer” as the Machine of the Year. 

In late October 1982, Time magazine editor-in-chief Henry Grunwald, editorial director Ralph Graves, and managing editor Ray Cave made their fateful choice to honor the computer in their much-awaited yearly selection, a tradition at the magazine since 1927. 

Time’s custom-breaking pick—of a machine as opposed to a person— was in part a reflection of the magazine’s own shifts. In April 1982, the editors had green-lit a weekly Computer section. Most writers had transitioned to word processors, although senior writer Otto Friedrich stubbornly continued to draft his articles on a 15-year-old Royal 440 typewriter. 

 Grunwald had worked at Time since 1944, only four years after his family fled Nazi-controlled Austria. He recalled the jarring early-1980s technological transition in his 1997 memoir, One Man’s America, likening his early strolls through the Time central computer room to political journalist Henry Adams’ urge to pray upon witnessing massive machines in the Hall of Dynamos at the 1900 Paris Great Exposition: “I was not tempted to pray, but I did feel that I was in the presence of a new force. Was it, in Adams’s words, a moral force? I was not sure. I did understand that the force was not material like the dynamo’s; physical power was being replaced by intellectual power.”  

Time’s changes were representative of those sweeping the nation. In the United States alone, more than 100 companies sold around 2.8 million personal computers for $4.9 billion in 1982, almost three times the sales from 1980. The IBM PC, introduced in August 1981, was exceeding sales expectations by as much as 800%. The Apple II, which Silicon Valley wunderkinds Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak put on the market in 1977, had seen sales double every four months, spurred by the 1979 introduction of the early spreadsheet program VisiCalc and video game applications. 

A Time poll found that nearly 80% of Americans expected computers to be as ubiquitous as televisions and dishwashers by the end of the 1980s. The magazine also found that Americans were optimistic about the new technology; 67% of respondents believed that the “computer revolution” would raise production and living standards.

 The exponential growth of the industry was enough to push the Time editors away from their usual focus on humans. The magazine had deviated from selecting specific People of the Year only five times—“G.I. Joe” was honored in 1950, “The Hungarian Patriot” in 1956, “The Inheritors” in 1966, “The Middle Americans” in 1969, and “The American Woman” in 1975 (which barely counted, as they selected a group of twelve representative women). Only one other woman had ever been picked—Queen Elizabeth II got the nod during her coronation year in 1952.  

Time released the issue on December 26th, 1982. In an introductory letter, publisher John Meyers offered a brief explanation of the choice: “The enduring American love affairs with the automobile and the television set are now being transformed into a giddy passion for the personal computer,” Meyers declared. “America will never be the same.” 

Sure enough, the first ad after the Index page was for an early Radio Shack PC (“The biggest name in little computers”), the TRS-80 Model III.  

The 22-page cover included a tongue-in-cheek essay from longtime cultural critic Roger Rosenblatt, who satirically addressed the reader while invoking past American iconographies. “Deep in your all-American heart (you are American, aren’t you, pal?), you crave this little honey, which will count for you and store for you,” Rosenblatt wrote of the PC. “Point is, it will save you time. Time time time. And we need all the time we can save. Can’t kill time without injuring eternity. Thoreau said that. Great America, Thoreau.” 

The aforementioned quasi-luddite Otto Friedrich followed with a feature on the educational and entrepreneurial possibilities of the computer, complete with a profile of a Wisconsin furniture retailer who doubled his income using sales software. Correspondent Michael Moritz offered a profile of 27-year-old Apple co-founder Steve Jobs (“By whatever name—the dream, the pitch, the rap, the reality-distortion field—Jobs’ unwavering ambition and ferocious will have caused a number of people to become rich”), and a historical review of computation beginning with the abacus. 

The issue’s cover also became a talking point. Pop Art sculptor George Segal crafted a white plaster figurine sitting at his desk and staring at a chart on his monitor. Time art director Rudy Hoglund had considered alternate covers, including one showing a neighborhood with houses that looked like computer screens and another with an anthropomorphic computer with little arms and legs, but had settled on Segal’s vision because of his “stark and dramatic settings, in which the eye is drawn to objects.” 

Pundits reacted with shock to the issue. This wasn’t new; plenty of controversy had accompanied past Men of the Year. Hitler and Stalin (twice!) won the honor. In 1977, Israeli officials unsuccessfully attempted to add Prime Minister Menachem Begin to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s selection. Two years later, 9,000 readers canceled their subscriptions after the magazine selected Iranian dictator Ayatollah Khomeini—then holding 52 American hostages—as Man of the Year. 

Several prominent cultural critics also had to answer for their incorrect predictions. Gossip columnist Liz Smith was convinced that E.T., the runaway cinematic figure of the year, would be selected—another unconventional choice. Begin, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, “the unemployed,” and Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volcker were all bandied about as potential alternatives. 

Steve Jobs was also surprised, believing that he was a shoo-in for the award, particularly since TIME journalist Mike Moritz had so extensively interviewed him at his Silicon Valley office for his profile in the issue. “I was 27, so I actually cared about stuff like that. I thought it was pretty cool,” Jobs told his biographer, Walter Isaacson. “They FedExed me the magazine, and I remember opening the package, thoroughly expecting to see my mug on the cover, and it was this computer sculpture thing. I thought, ‘Huh?’ And then I read the article, and it was so awful that I actually cried.”

 The Time top brass insisted they had never seriously considered Jobs for the honor. As Grunwald told the Wall Street Journal upon the selection: “It’s much more interesting and dramatic to do a machine than a man peripherally connected with the computer.” 

 On January 2nd, 1983, a Boston Globe editorial pondered the potential negative backlash: “Who knows how many outraged Time readers will call up the talk shows, cancel their subscriptions, dash off angry letters to the editor deploring the choice of a mechanical object that performs robot-like functions instead of a living, breathing, thinking, feeling human being?”

The Chicago Tribune’s Joan Beck was similarly scathing: “With perhaps a soupcon of corporate self-interest, Time magazine has awarded its sexist Man of the Year title to the computer.”  

Fellow Tribune columnist Anne Keegan—in a more explicitly moral stand—shared the story of her own hero, a Laotian immigrant neighbor of hers named Kom Vongphachahn who had lost his hands during the Laotian Civil War and who collected cans in the cold to feed his family. 

James Reston, the New York Time’s eminence grise, joined the critics, writing a satirical column in which he asked “Uniquack,” a recurring computer character in Reston’s oeuvre with whom the cranky pundit commiserated, about Time’s selection. After quizzing “Uniquack” on the likelihood of nuclear war with the Soviets, Reston asked his invention: “Nevertheless, you think we’ll have a happy new year?” “Uniquack” replied: “I didn’t say that. I just said we’d muddle through and stay alive and that the people will have all the fun and the sorrow, and the Man of the Year will be left alone in the night.” 

Near the end of the month, on January 25th, 1983, the computer discourse hit Washington. President Ronald Reagan invoked the explosion of the PC market in his State of the Union address: “To many of us now, computers, silicon chips, data processing, cybernetics and all the other innovations of the dawning high-technology age are as mystifying as the workings of the combustion engine must have been when that first Model T rattled down Main Street, U.S.A,” Reagan admitted. “But as surely as America’s pioneer spirit made us the industrial giant of the 20th century, the same pioneer spirit today is opening up on another vast front of opportunity, the frontier of high technology.” 

Almost forty years later, the frontier of high technology has clearly opened vastly. The discourse over whether computers are heroic or destructive—and whether tech wizards like Musk are deserving of honor—continue with the same intensity. 

For more on the early 1980s discourse around the economic and cultural placement of the computer, read journalist Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1981 The Soul of a New Machine.

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