Halt and Catch Fire


Halt and Catch Fire

Halt and Catch Fire is an AMC television series that ran for four seasons from 2014-2017, and covers the culture and pivotal aspects of the computing industry from 1983 (just after the release of the IBM PC) to 1994 (when the Internet and World Wide Web exploded).

You can binge watch it on Netflix if you like today, and trust me - you won’t be disappointed! Halt and Catch Fire is the best drama I’ve ever seen - an emotional rollercoaster like no other. The characters are unforgettable, the acting is nothing short of phenomenal, and the entire series has an incredible message about technology and human progress that you only get once you see the final episode!

Now here’s a little secret of mine: I love dramas, but I often get choked up watching them. For example, the movie Million Dollar Baby wrecked me for days afterwards. But Halt and Catch Fire was even more intense.

Halt and Catch Fire somehow takes you into that exact time period in a way that few other historical dramas do. And while the people, events and companies in the series are fictitious, they mirror real people, events and companies that could have existed during that time, to illustrate the views and pivotal events in computing evolution. I grew up in the tech industry during the same time period - as a result, the series hits even closer to home for me.

An excellent review of the series is from the New York Times - you can read it here: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/14/arts/television/halt-and-catch-fire-finale.html

However, in this blog post, I’ll give you a short version of the tech stuff as well as identify some key things that caught my attention. That being said, this is no substitute for watching the series itself - even if you don’t like dramas, Halt and Catch Fire is nothing short of a masterpiece.

Season 1:

The first season of the series explores the proliferation of the IBM PC clone industry in 1983, which was essentially a massive gold rush with a small startup spirit. There were big mentions of names like Compaq, and most of the computers depicted during this season were IBM PCs. There were also arcade games like Centipede, and text-based computer games Adventure (which were both HUGE at the time), hacking, Cabbage Patch Dolls and COMDEX (in all of it’s weird glory).

The coolest quote from the first season was: “Computers aren’t the thing - they are the thing that gets you to the thing.”

Seasons 2 & 3:

The second and third seasons cover the ultra-relaxed, high-maintenance startup spirit in even more depth. Laser tag, mess, attitudes, fights, and so on. They focus on the rise of dial-up BBS network services during the mid-late 1980s (including mention of big names like Compuserve and Telenet), and how it was a natural evolution from computers. Nearly all of the computers shown during this time period were Commodore 64s, which dominated the 1980s, and were often used to play games and access BBSes (many fond memories on my part). There were a few brief glimpses of the original Macintosh and the original Amiga.

Some other neat things that happened in these seasons include:

  • The start of computer security software (due to an “accidental virus”)
  • The Nintendo NES craze
  • How the ARPANET/NSFNet eventually became the commercial Internet

At the end of the third season, they set the stage for the fourth season by introducing the next big thing: the dawn of the Internet and the World Wide Web (and the HTML language and HTTP protocol). But they got the positioning of it at the time perfect!

In case you don’t know, Tim Berners-Lee created the idea of Web servers on the Internet, and created the original software to do it on a NeXT computer at CERN. But for it to work, it had to not be tied to a specific company - the evolution of the Internet had to be progressed by the people who used and contributed content to it.

I love this quote from the final episode of Season 3 that talks about how Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web was originally viewed:

“A network that lives exclusively on a ridiculously-overpriced machine that doesn’t really play nice with anything else on the technological landscape, what we’re really looking at is a tiny little desert island that nobody gives a shit about"

And how people eventually realized it really was a door to limitless possibilities. In fact, the people in the series set out to build the door (a Web browser) before anyone else, because right now everyone simply saw it as “an online research catalog running on NeXT on a network in Europe.”

Season 4:

At the beginning of this season, you’ll see the turmoil surrounding the commercialization and growth of early Internet Service Providers (ISPs) during the early 1990s, including big names like AOL. Shortly after NCSA Mosaic became the first widely-adopted Web browser (the door to limitless possibilities), the people in the series shifted their focus to building the next big thing, which was a Web search engine to index and connect people to the resources on the Internet. It also explored the dawn of the Internet from a human perspective, including how people can be “real” on the Internet.

Most of the computers in this season (the early 1990s) were Sun SPARCStations, with some Windows PCs scattered throughout. Mortal Kombat, DOOM!, and the Super Nintendo also showed us how games changed since the previous seasons over time.

By the end of the series, they realize that people really wanted more than just a Web search engine - the next big thing was a space on the Internet where they could get news, weather, and hang out. But the winner in this space was Yahoo!, which was bundled with the new Netscape Web browser that stole the thunder from NCSA Mosaic. Among the losers, were the characters portrayed in the series.

But the best part of the fourth season is the final episode, where they tie it all together and tell you what you probably never overtly realized watching all of the previous episodes - a powerful message about failure and growth that goes far beyond computers, defines the human spirit, and makes the whole series unforgettable.