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This month in tech history: January - TIME's Machine of the Year

3 January 1983 – TIME names the computer ‘Man of the Year’

TIME magazine’s ‘Person of the Year’ (called Man of the Year until 1999) is an annual issue that features and profiles the “person or persons who most affected the news and our lives, for good or ill, and embodied what was important about the year”. The tradition began in 1927, and in the 88 issues since has featured just four individual women (this year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel became the first woman named since 1986), more than a dozen groups or movements, and… well A LOT of men. Also, two that I’ll put down as ‘other’ – one was ‘The Endangered Earth’ in 1988, the other (the one we’re all here for), was the Personal Computer, which TIME named ‘Machine of the Year’, in 1983.

The PC isn’t the only tech-related winner – TIME has also featured Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (he was in fact the first gender-neutral “Person of the Year” back in 1999), as well as a bunch of other tech/science figureheads – but it was the first non-human winner.

By way of introduction to the feature, TIME publisher John A. Meyers wrote, “Several human candidates might have represented 1982, but none symbolised the past year more richly, or will be viewed by history as more significant, than a machine: the computer.” The full section features eight related articles, with the key piece titled “The Computer Moves In”[pdf]. Ironically, it seems that the main writer actually worked on a typewriter, but Meyers claimed that systems upgrade was imminent, and the magazine’s newsroom would be using word processors within a year.

The decision to pick an inanimate object continues to be a controversial one, and TIME’s Deputy Managing Editor Radhika Jones has conceded that “readers are most satisfied when the Person of the Year is a person”. But she argues that “the personal computer really stands up”.

Interestingly, Steve Jobs was profiled for the same issue, and Jones admits “you could argue the editors might have been more forward-looking had they named Steve Jobs for that year”, but the truth is he wasn’t actually considered. Unfortunately though, nobody told Jobs that, and, expecting to see his face on the cover, he cried when he read the issue.

TIME editor at large, Harry McCracken, said of the issue on its 30th anniversary in 2013, “The PC remains TIME’s first and only Machine of the Year — the only man-made object to be named the year’s top newsmaker. It wouldn’t stun me if it retains that distinction forever. I like to think, though, that there’s at least some chance that we’ll revive the idea someday — maybe for some device which doesn’t even exist today. But it would have to be an awfully important gadget to matter as much as the PC mattered 30 years ago.”

So what do you think has the potential to be TIME’s next ‘Gadget of the Year’? Let us know in the comments.

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Kate Hoy

Kate Hoy is Editor of IDG Connect

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