January 22, 2013 2:30 pm
Among all the wonders that computers can perform, perhaps one of the most common tasks we give it—a task that once took up most of a person’s time—is to procure food. Online ordering, a miracle of modern technology, has become a way of life, a service that can be depended on even when a hurricane threatens. But it wasn’t always that way.
Here, witness a key moment in digital delivery: the first pizza ever ordered with a computer.
By the late 1960s, technologists were already inventing the future we now inhabit. Arthur C. Clarke peered into the future and saw a wired world where information and communication would be immediate and borderless. Marshall McLuhan foresaw the rough outlines of what we now call “social media.” And others predicted that email and ecommerce were on the not-so-distant horizon. It should perhaps then come as no surprise that, just a few years later, The Artificial Language Laboratory at Michigan State developed a way for the computer to start doing some everyday commerce — like ordering pizza.
In 1974 Donald Sherman, whose speech was limited by a neurological disorder called Moebius Syndrome, used a new-fangled device designed by John Eulenberg to dial up a pizzeria. The first call went to Dominos, which hung up. They were apparently too busy becoming a behemoth. Mercifully, a humane pizzeria – Mr. Mike’s – took the call, and history was made. It all plays out above, and we hope that Mr. Mike’s is still thriving all these years later….
And since then, well, it’s been nothing but pizza goodness. In June of last year, Domino’s online sales eclipsed $1 billion. Time writes:
Consumers have embraced e-commerce in waves. By now, the time when shopping online felt like a novelty is a distant memory. Most people today are completely comfortable booking travel via the web—it’d probably feel awkward and bizarrely inefficient to call up and reserve an airline ticket—and we’re all quite accustomed to ordering books, DVDs, toys, sneakers, electronics, and most other goods online.
It’s taken quite some time, though, for a broad swath of consumers to take to ordering restaurant food for delivery or takeout online. On the one hand, it seems like such orders would be a perfect fit for digital. Online ordering eliminates the need for a customer to wait on hold on the phone, and consumers can view menus and see orders on screens with their own eyes to double check for errors. On the other hand, restaurants needed to build systems that smoothly, efficiently, and quickly accepted online orders. For a while, it seemed as if consumers were skeptical about ordering digitally; the assumption was that it was easier and quicker just to call up.
Of course, not everyone has embraced the online age. And perhaps in the future we’ll just think thoughts of the doughnuts or mac and cheese we want and have restaurants deliver it all to us immediately. But in 1974 that seemed just as ridiculous as a computer ordering your pizza for you.
More from Smithsonian.com:
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.