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.