Halt and Catch Fire
Created by Christopher C Rogers and Christopher Cantwell, Halt and Catch Fire is an American TV series that depicts the growth of the personal computer and how the World Wide Web has developed since the 1980s. First airing on AMC in June 2014, it gives a fictionalised insider’s view of the revolution in personal computers that grew into the World Wide Web in the early 1990s.
The show begins in the Silicon Prairie of Dallas, Fort Worth. Its title refers to HCF, which is a computer machine code instruction – the computer’s central processing unit would stop working if HCF was executed and “catch fire” was an in-joke, exaggerating what could happen if this should occur.
The series begins in the early 1980s, when the spirit of innovation in personal computers is about to take off in a big way. A renegade trio including an engineer, a visionary and a prodigy, risk everything to realise their dream of building a computer that will change the future.
At the time, IBM had cornered the market with its flagship personal computer. However, a flaw is discovered in its PC, opening the door for competitors. Joe MacMillan is a former IBM executive who’s now working for Cardiff Electric – he sees his chance! He forms an elaborate plan to reverse-engineer IBM’s technology, putting Cardiff at the forefront of the personal computer race.
MacMillan enlists the help of volatile prodigy Cameron Howe, who risks her future by joining his rogue project, and engineer Gordon Clark, who has ambitions to create a revolutionary computer.
The show has proved a success with the critics and the public, running for four series – the most recent airing from August until October 2017. The latter two series are set in Silicon Valley. It manages to turn the seemingly sedate intrigue surrounding search engine code wars into a dramatic saga of betrayal, with some “eureka” moments.
Beyond the fictional storylines focusing on the rise of technology, Halt and Catch Fire also pays homage to all of the unsung heroes who helped build the Internet in the early years. The advertising tagline for season four is, “What are you searching for?” – emphasising its focus on the birth of search engines in the 1990s.
It introduces viewers to two of the first search engines. Rover is similar to the early algorithm-powered Google search and Comet is very much like the early Yahoo and focuses on human-crafted indexing.
What makes this all the more fascinating is the fact that Rover and Comet are both fictional and are invented in Halt and Catch Fire. In the series, Joe and Gordon are expanding employee Haley Clark’s web index project (Comet) into a widely-used website, while Rover is a rival search engine created by Donna Clark and her start-up team.
Real-life working versions of Rover and Comet have been invented in conjunction with the series, so that modern-day internet users can try them out for themselves. Get a taste of surfing the web early 1990s-style by checking out the Web 1.0 sites on Comet’s homepage, or use Rover’s search algorithm to explore the ever-expanding World Wide Web!
Fans of Halt and Catch Fire are hoping a fifth series is in the pipeline, although AMC haven’t commented on whether this will be happening or not. The fourth series left the main characters somewhat up in the air as they navigated the early days of the internet and web browsers, wondering what the future held for them, personally and professionally. Although series four was officially the final series, speculation is rife that it will be revived for a fifth outing.
The World Wide Web has come a long way since the 1980s!
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