Macintosh at Twenty Five

Dave Winer has just reminded me that its been twenty five years since I first used a Mac (thanks Dave).

At the time I was a graduate student in Astronomy at Mount Stromlo Observatory. Our job was to turn photons into paper. Billions of photons traveling from the edge of the universe and the begining of time would land splat on our detectors and be processed into endless shelves of journals lining the library walls – Astrophysical Journal, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society et al. One day a harbinger of change showed up in the computer room in the form of a small beige box, right next to the VAX.

Stromlo was and is one of the finest astronomical research facilities on the planet and we had state of the art technology. Every (clear) night, telescopes would amplify the light from distant galaxies onto some of the worlds most powerful photon detectors. The data would be written to 10.5 inch magnetic tapes for later analysis.

We used computers to process all that data. Well actually we pretty much used one computer. The full cohort of Stromlo (about 30 staff and students) all simultaneously used one VAX 11/780. The VAX was commonly accessed via a number of VT100 terminals. Most staff had one of these on their desks. Students shared the communal terminals in the computer room and scattered round common areas. The VT100s were text only. For image processing, you had to book time on one of the two video terminals. Line graphics (graphs, scatter plots, contour plots etc) could also be viewed on one of the three Tektronix 4010 terminals in the computer room. The Tektronix was this really cool little green terminal that could plot line graphics like an etch-a-sketch on speed.

Once your data was analysed you had to prepare a photo-ready manuscript for publication in your selected journal. Typists were available to help turn hand-written notes into well laid-out typeset and draftsmen were available for graphics and mathematical equations. The process was time-consuming because often multiple iterations were required – especially for mathematical equations which were hieroglyphics to your average draftsman. And their bandwidth was limited, with senior staff generally getting priority. We students had to make do with other means.

After a little while of this type of process I learned to use TeX for typesetting papers and equations (and yes, I did write my entire 300 page thesis in TeX). I’d code TeX script on the VT100 and then generate the copy for preview on the Tektronix. If I needed a hard-copy, I would use the Versatec printer. This was an old chemical device that had similar resolution to the Tektronix and would spool out a roll of paper wet with some stinky carcinogens. More presentable copy could be obtained via the dot-matrix printer, but remember your ear-guards and wait significant time for the result.

So this was my state of the art in “word processing” in 1984. Possibly less productive than the manual approach, but I owned every step of the production process and was not beholden to typists or draftsmen – very important for a student on a deadline working nights.

Then one day this beige box appeared in the computer room (I don’t recall if this thing had a laserwriter hooked up to it, but I think it must have). I had a poster-paper to prepare for a conference and procrastination meant I had a short deadline – definitely time to try something new.

The Mac didn’t have an internal disk drive (who knew it was needed) so I had to scrabble around for a boot floppy. This was different to the 5 1/4 inch floppy disk I was used to and was something that South Africans’ disarmingly call a “stiffy”. You needed one of these to boot the Mac and if you actually wanted to do anything useful you had to have some applications on the floppy as well. I had one containing MacWrite and MacPaint.

MacWrite and MacPaint introduced me to the wonderful new world of WYSIWYG. In no time, I got a pretty nicely typeset paper ready with a cool “hand drawn” graphic and all printed out onto A4 paper (with no carcinogens) – ready for the conference.

There was only one small hiccup. Occasionally MacWrite would pause and emit a “wrrr wrrr” sound which I was later to realise meant the program was saving the document to disk. On about page 6, the computer went into permanent wrrr-mode. The disk had filled up and it was thrashing to find space to save the document. After running around in a panic I eventually solved the problem by saving the document to a new floppy. But it definitely meant the capacity of this thing was limited.

And that was my first mac experience.

This first Mac wasn’t really all that useful. I don’t think I went back to it again until the Mac SE came out some time later with internal hard drive and better software for word processing and spreadsheets. But the WYSIWYG genie was out of the box. Not long after this, the typists and draftsmen would be gone – reassigned to other duties. A couple of years later, the WYSIWYG philosophy would extend to data analysis when the first Sun “pizza boxes” put a computer on everyones desk more powerful than the VAX.

Now everyone owns their word-processing requirements from start to finish. Beautifully typeset papers – camera ready – can be obtained on your own desktop computer with minimal effort. Something we are familiar with in every work environment today, but it wasn’t so 25 years ago.


#1 Lyndon on 01.05.09 at 11:32 am

Ahh the Techtronix, I think they had some sort of CPU in them because the printer hooked in directly to the terminal and simply drew what was on the screen at the time.

Didn’t your dotmatrix printer have a perspex shield to lessen the noise 🙂

#2 Saul on 01.05.09 at 11:36 am

Yes it did have a perspex shield, but not to much effect.

#3 Mic on 01.05.09 at 8:36 pm

And still with all the progress nothing better than TeX/LaTeX has come along for real DTP. Every time I have to deal with a damn RFP in Word I miss it.

#4 Andy on 01.06.09 at 10:15 am

This is all the more reason for you to go out today and purchase a spanking new one. Come on, you have an iPhone already and Jobs needs your cash to help with his hormones.

#5 Saul on 01.06.09 at 10:37 am

@Mic, I kind of agree…TeX has no peer for the beauty and elegance of its output, and if you know HTML then TeX is pretty easy as it has much the same semantics. It is effectively a markup language. But the lack of WYSIWYG capability adds too much latency to the author/review/correct cycle. I haven’t used TeX in such a long time it is hard to make proper comparisons.

The thing that Word has done is turn us all from authors into typesetters. Agonising over fonts and styles and graphics layouts is a real spoiler for content, but I think TeX would have that problem as well.

#6 Saul on 01.06.09 at 10:43 am

@Andy, actually I’m hanging out for one of these

#7 steve smith on 01.07.09 at 8:53 am

I did my “senior project” on a Tektronix 4013 which had the “APL” keyboard. I blew the CS faculty and fellow students away by implementing a full 3D-perspective geometric modeling package. It was like 100 lines of APL, it was nigh on to trivial, but nobody (else) really seemed to understand computing and geometry… go figure.

The “Print” feature on the Tektronix was based on a very simple bit of circuitry which actually used the screen itself as a storage tube. The deflection circuitry would scan a beam over the screen at low (below write) intensity and detect whether that point on the screen was already “energized” or not. The printers were simple thermal devices that were addressed linearly (scan line at a time) themselves. I’m sure there were some small line-buffers in the Tektronix.

When I took my first job at LANL, they had the new BIG SCREEN Tektronix tubes… like 17″ diagonal. I was in heaven! As we were developing a “real time” graphics system that generated 512×512 1 bit images on the CRAY 1 and moved it up to 12 miles to a frame buffer/monitor at 5 frames per second, we were really impressed when we got an Evans and Sutherland stroke refresh (instead of storage like the Teks) system with a 20+ inch screen! We were cooking then!

– Steve

PS. Welcome to FRIAM

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