Looking back on the early PC from 2005

When I studied at MIT I was present for the beginnings of the PC — but until I went into the EECS Dept. in 1983 it was mostly through accidental contacts. I didn’t really get into it myself until around 1978, when I started subscribing to Byte and Dr. Dobb’s Journal of Computer Calisthenics and Orthodontia. By 1980 I had built my own video board and S-100 bus CP/M machine (housed in a found-on-the-street filing cabinet which still smelled slightly of cat piss.)

This morning in the Mercury News I read a review of What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry. It set off some memories of that era and mentioned some of the people I ran into. Here’s some people I haven’t yet mentioned in this chronicle:

Jim Warren: I met Jim when I moved to California in 1997. He told me some wonderful but unrepeatable stories about drug use and sex orgies among the local professoriate and the early PC movement. Besides being a founder of the West Coast Computer Faire and Dr. Dobbs, he was instrumental in helping to pass the first law requiring public electronic access to California government records.

Larry Tesler & Ed Birss: I was a huge fan of the Mac the moment I first saw one at MIT during Apple’s recruiting swing. I interviewed with Ed, who gave me one of the original posters for the Mac; I passed his interview but later was told they had decided to require a Master’s degree for all new hires. Ed went on the head the Taligent team and the ill-fated, dead-end Mac object-oriented operating system efforts. Larry I met several weeks later — he was rushed, I was late (the bus from BBN was delayed by a blizzard), and it was clear nothing was going to come of my proposal to make Scheme a supported language on the Mac. Years later I tangled with Larry on the mailing list for brainstorming Dylan, where he supported a “C++-like” syntax and didn’t enjoy our purist OOP criticisms. Larry was head of Apple’s Advanced Technology Division for years, and eventually Chief Scientist.

Gordon Eubanks: I was interviewing at Think (the Think C people) up in Burlington and somehow (lost in hazy memory) ended up being interviewed by Symantec as well — this may have been when Think was being bought by Symantec. Had a long and enjoyable chat with Gordon. Gordon ran Symantec for many years after, successfully resisting incorporation in Microsoft’s empire — they are now well-known for their Norton Antivirus and other products. He’s now CEO at Oblix.

John McCarthy: even though I was at MIT’s AI Lab, my only contact with McCarthy is via a Usenet group focused on British Columbia, where we occasionally discussed the politics of logging and environmentalism’s increasing resemblance to a religious movement. He has been one of the world’s pre-eminent iconoclasts; the Wikipedia entry on him says he comments from a “right-wing perspective,” which is just silly. His parents were Communist Party members and his perspective is post-Left, post-Right, and all his. It is now Conventional Wisdom that any disagreement with the lemminglike orthodoxy of what is now called Progressive Thought makes you right-wing.

Ah well, it was long ago, and now our machines are made of sealed modules we can’t modify with a little wire-wrap magic as we used to. The software is complex beyond any one person’s understanding and often misbehaves in impossible-to-understand ways. Pioneers are tied down by a thousand threads of committees, patents, backward-compatibility, and API issues….

But I just got a Fluke Intellitone 100 kit, which will let me trace the dead POTS lines in the house.

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