A computer user illustration
Benj Edwards

We use the term “computer user” frequently, but with so many people who purchase computers, why not say “computer owner,” “computer customer,” or something else? We dug into the history behind the term and found something we never expected.

The Unusual Case of “Computer User”

The term “computer user” feels a little unusual if you stop and think about it. When we buy and use an automobile, we’re “car owners” or “car drivers,” not “car users.” When we use a hammer, we’re not called “hammer users.” Imagine purchasing a handbook on how to use a saw called “Handbook for Saw Users.” It might make sense, but it sounds odd.

Young woman wearing headphones while taking notes in front of a laptop,

And yet when we describe people who operate a computer or a piece of software, we often call people “computer users” or “software users.” People who use Twitter are “Twitter users,” and people with memberships to eBay are “eBay users.”

Some people have recently made the mistake of conflating this term with a “user” of illegal drugs. Without a clear history of the term “computer user” available until now, this confusion is not surprising in this era where many criticize social media for its addictive properties. But the term “user” as related to computers and software has nothing to do with drugs and originated independently. Let’s take a look into the history of the term to figure out how it started.

Using Other People’s Systems

The term “computer user” in the modern sense goes way back to the 1950s—to the dawn of the commercial computer era. To pinpoint where it started, we searched through historical computer literature on the Internet Archive and discovered something very interesting: Between 1953 and 1958-59, the term “computer user” nearly always referred to a company or organization, not an individual.

Surprise! The first computer users weren’t people at all.

From our survey, we discovered that the term “computer user” emerged around 1953, with the earliest known instance located in an issue of Computers and Automation (Vol. 2 Issue 9), which was the first computer industry journal. The term remained rare until around 1957, and increased in usage as commercial computer installations increased.

Excerpt from a Remington Rand E.R.A. 1103 Computer Advertisement, 1954
Ad for an early commercial digital computer from 1954. Remington Rand

So why were the first computer users companies and not individuals? There’s a good reason for that. Once upon a time, computers were very big and expensive. In the 1950s, at the dawn of commercial computing, computers often occupied a dedicated room and required many large, specialized pieces of equipment to operate. To get any useful output from them, your staff needed formal training. Further, if something broke, you couldn’t go to a computer shop and buy a replacement. In fact, most computers were so expensive to maintain that a large majority of companies rented or leased them from manufacturers such as IBM with service contracts that covered the installation and maintenance of the computer hardware over time.

A 1957 survey of “electronic computer users” (companies or organizations) showed that only 17 percent of them owned their computer, verses 83 percent that leased them. And this 1953 Burroughs advertisement refers to a list of “typical computer users” that includes Bell and Howell, Philco, and Hydrocarbon Research, Inc. Those are all company and organization names. In the same ad, they mention that their computer services are available “for a fee,” suggesting a lease arrangement.

During this era, if you wanted to collectively refer to companies that used computers, it would not be appropriate to call the entire group “computer owners,” since a majority of companies leased their equipment. So the term “computer users” filled that role instead.

The Shift From Companies to Individuals

As computers entered the real-time, interactive era with time sharing in 1959, the definition of “computer user” began to shift away from companies and more toward individual people, who were also starting to be called “programmers.” Around the same time, computers became more common at universities where individual students would use them—obviously without owning them. They represented a large wave of new computer users. Computer users groups began to spring up around America, which shared tips and information about how to program or operate these new information machines.

A DEC PDP-1 with Spacewar superimposed on the screen.
The DEC PDP-1 from 1959 was an early machine that focused on individual real-time interactions with the computer. DEC

During the mainframe era of the 1960s and early 1970s, organizations usually hired computer maintenance staff known as “computer operators” (a term which originated in the 1940s in a military context) or “computer administrators” (first seen in 1967 during our search) who kept the computers running. In this scenario, a “computer user” would be someone using the machine who was not necessarily the owner or administrator of the computer, which was almost always the case at that time.

This era spawned a host of “user” terms related to time sharing systems with real-time operating systems that included account profiles for each person using the computer, including user account, user ID, user profile, multi-user, and end user (a term which far preceded the computer era but became rapidly associated with it).

What Are We Using the Computer For?

When the personal computer revolution came around in the mid-1970s (and grew rapidly into the early 1980s), individuals could finally own a computer comfortably. And yet the “computer user” term persisted. In an era where millions of people were suddenly using computer for the first time, the association between the individual and the  “computer user” became stronger than ever before.

Computer User and MacUser magazine covers from 1983 and 1985.
Many “user” magazines launched in the ’80s, such as these from 1983 and 1985. Tandy, ZiffDavis

In fact, the term “computer user” almost became a point of pride or an identity label in the personal computer era. Tandy even adopted the term as the title of a magazine for TRS-80 computer owners. Other magazines with “User” in the title included MacUser, PC User, Amstrad User, Timex Sinclair User, The Micro User, and more. And the idea of a “power user” emerged in the 1980s as an especially knowledgeable user who got the most out of their computer system.

Ultimately, the term “computer user” probably keeps going because because of its general utility as a catch-all. To recall what we mentioned earlier, someone who uses a car is called a “driver” because they drive the car. Someone who watches TV is called a “viewer” because they view things on a screen. But what do we use computers for? Just about everything. That’s one of the reasons why “user” fits so well, because it’s a generic term for someone who uses a computer or piece of software for any purpose. And as long as that continues to be the case, there will always be computer users among us.

Remember to read your history and stay safe out there!

Profile Photo for Benj Edwards Benj Edwards
Benj Edwards is a former Associate Editor for How-To Geek. Now, he is an AI and Machine Learning Reporter for Ars Technica. For over 15 years, he has written about technology and tech history for sites such as The Atlantic, Fast Company, PCMag, PCWorld, Macworld, Ars Technica, and Wired. In 2005, he created Vintage Computing and Gaming, a blog devoted to tech history. He also created The Culture of Tech podcast and regularly contributes to the Retronauts retrogaming podcast.
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