Lorrie Heasley was wearing a shirt with a picture of members of the Bush administration and the a slight variation of the name of the recent film "Meet the Fockers". Better not fly wearing any of these!
But the truth of those half-heard folktales from my youth is that nearly every concept in the personal computer predates all of this, in a delightfully picaresque tale that starts in the late 1950s and weaves together computers, LSD, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, the Vietnam War and dozens of characters.
John Markoff, veteran technology reporter for the New York Times, is the first to comprehensively tell this story in his new book What The Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry . Markoff, best known for Cyberpunk and Takedown: The Pursuit and Capture of Kevin Mitnick, explodes the conventional notion that the PC replaced the mini-computer in the same way that the mini-computer replaced the mainframe -- by a sort of evolutionary selection within the computer business, by persistently investigating the roots of the PC its unsung pioneers, its user interface, and the culture of open-source software in the San Francisco drug and anti-war culture of the late 1950s and 1960s.
Markoff has painstakingly researched the men (and a few women) who populated the cutting edge of the computer revolution in 1960s San Francisco, capturing an oral history of the PC never before recorded. Central to "Dormouse" is the story of Doug Engelbart, the "tragic hero" of computing, and the man who invented -- and demonstrated -- virtually every aspect of modern computing as much as a decade before the PC. Engelbart presided over the ground-breaking 1968 demo of his Augment concept, which included multiple overlapping windows, the original mouse, a screen cursor, video conferencing, hyperlinks and cut-and-paste -- virtually every aspect of the modern PC user interface three decades later. Yet the combination of Engelbart's ego and his poor management skills doomed the project, and his best team members leaked over to Xerox PARC, where they worked on the equally doomed "Alto" workstation, source of Steve Job's inspiration.
In parallel to this central story are those of the Stanford AI Lab (SAIL), the Free University, the People's Computer Company, and the Homebrew Computer Club, all located within a few files of the center of the San Francisco peninsula. SAIL, in its first incarnation under John McCarthy and Les Earnest, may have been the first place where computers (or the powerful access to a time-sharing server) really were "personal", and was almost certainly the birthplace of the first true computer game, SpaceWar. It was the locus of naked hot-tub parties, a porn video, and not a little bit of LSD (taken both as serious experimentation and recreationally) that fueled a cast of characters dodging the Vietnam war at Stanford and at the ARPA-funded Stanford Research Institute and creating a counter-culture. Virtually everyone linked to the genesis of the PC spent some time at SAIL, including Alan Kay, who conceived the first notebook computer, who appears first at SAIL before running into Englebart and his enrapturing demo of Augment, leading him to PARC and eventually Apple.
"Dormouse" is peppered with odd juxtapositions and combinations of characters including Fred Moore, the anti-war activist and single father who knit the community together with a pile of special punch cards and a knitting needle and helped create the People's Computer Company and the Homebrew Computer Club. Another, Steve Dompier, was widely accused -- falsely, Markoff convincingly reports -- of being the source for the infamous distribution of Gates' early Altair BASIC. (Was this the eThrough the whole story Stewart Brand -- of Whole Earth Catalog fame -- pops up "Zelig-like" at nearly every turn. The list goes on: Larry Tesler, Ken Kesey, Joan Baez, Ted Nelson, Lee Felsenstein, Bill English, Janis Joplin, and Bill Gates.
If the book has a problem, this is it. Markoff neither presents a first-person oral history nor is he able to tease a single central narrative thread out of this creative soup. He tells several interwoven stories, but there is so large a cast of characters that one must be a dedicated reader (or have a previous knowledge of some of the events described) to keep everything straight. Without a single narrative, the book returns several times to the start of a timeline, retracing it from another perspective, and after a while you feel the need for a map.
Markoff's own "Takedown" shows that with a clear narrative arc he is a wonderful writer, and while the complexity of the tale may keep away casual readers, Markoff does the entire technology industry a great service by capturing these tales while most of the primary sources are still alive. The central story of Doug Engelbart deserves a book of its own -- a better book than the nearly unreadable Bootstrapping by Thierry Bardini -- and one can hope that Markoff revisits the trove of original material he located for this story to write that book.
"Dormouse" is an essential "prequel" to Michael Hiltzik's excellent Dealers of Lightning, the definitive work (so far) on Xerox PARC, and belongs on every bookshelf that includes Katie Hafner's Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet.
For anyone who thinks they know anything, or wants to know anything, about the real roots of the PC revolution and the pioneers who never got famous, this book is required reading.
This (and this recent thread) has led me to think about how I can best preserve all of those pictures, videos, music clips, etc, given that I'm not the Library of Congress and I don't have $100m to spend.
The debate about CD-ROM longevity doesn't seem to be settled, and most people don't think you should count on a CD-ROM lasting even 5 years. I'm working on the assumption that this data needs to be readable in 30-50 years. Kodak claims that "with 95% confidence, 95% of the population of KODAK Writable CD Media will have a data lifetime of greater than 217 years if stored in the dark at 25C, 40% Relative Humiditiy after being recorded in a KODAK PCD Writer 200".
Well, you'll pardon me if I don't completely believe them. What are
Almost anything derogatory you could say about today's software design would be accurate. -- K.E. Iverson