40 Years On
What We Were Like In Our Work And Our Play
40 years on, when afar and asunder
Parted are those who are with us today
When you look back and forgetfully wonder
What you were like in your work and your play.
Here I am, shyly putting my toe into the waters of Substack. I thought I might as well begin my time here by acknowledging an anniversary and trying to recreate for those readers who are younger than me (statistically speaking, that will be the great majority of you) something of the atmosphere, manners, and modes of that time.
Forty years ago, exactly to the day as I write this, I emerged from a shop in New Oxford Street, London, carrying a large box. At the top left corner, a single word was printed in a discreetly elegant lettering style that I was soon to know as the New York “font”. Most of the space on the white box was taken up by a line drawing of a computer, a keyboard, and a much-talked-about device that we were to call a Mouse on account of the cable that swished from it like a tail.
The word printed in that font was “Macintosh”. My friend, the author Douglas Adams had been in the shop before me. He believed to his dying day, and I will believe to mine, that we bought the first two Apple Macintosh computers ever sold in Europe.
The moment I got to my flat I called up my friend Hugh and told him I had bought a Macintosh for close to £2,000 (according to the Historic Inflation Calculator, this is roughly equivalent to £8,000 today). Used to my extravagant ways as he was, this struck Hugh as a step too far into madness. A conversation ensued in which I continued to allow him to believe that I was indeed the possessor of an astoundingly expensive raincoat.
“But I’ve never even seen you in one mac before. Not even a cheap one.”
“That’s right. This’ll be my first ever Macintosh.”
“It better be bloody stylish.”
“Well, I think it is, certainly.”
“But two thousand pounds? I mean, Stephen …”
“Yes, but think of all it can do.”
“Keep you dry you mean?”
“Yes, I suppose it could do that.”
“What do you mean “it could”? Don’t tell me it’s not even properly waterproof?”
“Well, I don’t think it is waterproof at all actually.”
“What the …?”
“But I don’t intend to take it outside, you see.”
“You … you don’t intend … “
Hugh was not usually a quick man to hiss and froth, but by this time he was beginning to sound like a barista’s steam wand reaching its climax.
“No, I’m pretty sure I’ll keep it at home.”
“So it’s made out of some kind of fragile Italian silk that can’t even repel water?”
“No, it’s mostly plastic, to be honest.”
“A plastic mac for two thousand fucking pounds? Stephen ...”
“It does come with accessories. I’m thinking of buying something to go with it tomorrow.”
“Accessories? What, gloves, I suppose. And how much do they cost?”
“Well the add-on I really want is about £900 I think - it’s called an ImageWriter.”
“ImageWriter? ImageWriter? ImageWriter? What does that even mean? Is it a type of scarf?”
A better man than I am would have pushed further, but I relented.
“No. Not a scarf. It’s a dot matrix printer. The Macintosh is Apple’s new computer. You remember that Ridley Scott cinema ad? And how I said I really wanted one of those?”
“You bastard. I am never speaking to you again.”
“Why on earth would anyone call a computer a Macintosh?”
“I’ll get back to you on that.”
The name was a mystery it took me a long time to solve.
Kids, there was no Google back then, let alone Chat GPT! Gather around Grandpa’s knee and I’ll explain. In those days, to find out anything, like say … the capital of Nigeria, you would give sixpence to a messenger boy, who would run up and down the street shouting “Capital of Nigeria, capital of Nigeria! Sixpence for the capital of Nigeria!” A citizen who knew the answer would approach the boy, take the sixpence, and say “Lagos” (which was indeed the name of the capital then, although I believe it is now Abuja), upon which the boy would hare back to me with the answer and receive a whole silver shilling for his pains, or as much as half a crown and a licorice chew if the information was obscure. Of course, the system fell down if a dishonest or mischievous citizen took the sixpence and gave an answer like “Nuneaton” or “Burt Reynolds”. Nonetheless, this is how our ancestors had always discovered facts, and for all we knew then, this is how we and our descendants would discover facts until the crack of doom.
Whether it was from one of those fact-finding messengers or from another source I can’t quite remember, but in the end I did discover how the Apple Macintosh got its name. Pioneering Mac developer Jef Raskin out in Cupertino, California where Apple had its headquarters, named the machine after his favorite - what’s the word? – “strain”, “breed”, “variety” of apple. “Cultivar”, that’s probably the right term, now that I think of it. Raskin’s favorite cultivar of apple was called the McIntosh, spelled like that. Only Apple, the computer company, couldn’t call their new machine McIntosh because there was a company that made (and still makes) high-end audio equipment under that very name and spelling. So to avoid confusion in one direction and to create more in another, Apple’s new baby was called Macintosh, soon of course whittled and smoothed away in public discourse to plain old Mac. To think that Jef Raskin’s favorite cultivar might have been Cox’s Orange Pippin. Or Granny Smith. Or the Sweet Willy. The contingencies on which history turns. A few years earlier the home computer company Commodore produced the Commodore Pet swiftly followed by the Commodore Vic. Much sniggering in the classrooms of Europe. “Pet” is French for “fart” and “vic” in German is pronounced “fick” which means in that language … well “fuck” to be perfectly honest. So after fart and fuck some spoilsport at Commodore decided their next machine should be the 64. No fun at all.
Mac was the first computer to arrive with WIMP computing baked in: the Window Icon Mouse Pointer paradigm was developed by the team at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, and the mouse itself was invented at nearby Stanford University. But it was Steve Jobs who saw that this Graphical User Interface could be integrated into a (relatively) affordable home computer. He was fired by the Apple board barely 20 months after the launch of the Macintosh. Well, to be more truthful he walked before he could be fired. And outside of Apple, he founded a new computer company called NeXT Inc.
But here’s a good story to finish with. In Switzerland, a young British computer scientist called Tim was working on a program, or series of programs, that would allow all the different kinds of computers housed at the underground particle accelerator at CERN to talk to each other, regardless of their make. He devised a HyperText Transfer Protocol, (HTTP), a Hypertext Transfer Markup Language (HTML), and a program that could use and display them - what we would now call a browser. He wrote all these on one of Steve Jobs’s NeXT “Cube” computers. He had hardly finished and tested his system, (which he was originally going to call The Information Mine until he realized with a modest British shudder, that this would make it TIM and so changed it to the World Wide Web) when he noticed that there was a developers conference in Paris for NeXT computer programmers. So he slipped the optical disk containing his code – the most valuable, powerful, and influential code ever written in history, I would argue – into a briefcase and took a train from Geneva to Paris.
Steve Jobs emerged into the hall, where NeXT Cubes were lined up, with proud developers standing by them anxious to show their work to the Great Man. Jobs walked up and down the first rows, like a Duchess judging a flower show, remarking in a very Jobsy way that this program rocked and that one sucked. He approached the final row at the end of which sat Tim Berners-Lee, hoping that Jobs would like and approve of what Tim modestly believed might be a really quite useful suite of programs. Jobs was halfway along that final row when one of his aides nudged him and whispered “We’ve really got to go now if we’re going to catch that plane…” So Steve waved across at the three programmers whose work he had failed to look at, Tim’s included, and said, “Sorry guys. Great that you’re behind this platform. I’m sure what you’ve done is fantastic.”
So Tim packed up and took a sorrowful train back to Geneva.
That’s the story Tim told me when I visited him at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The two most influential figures in the world of late twentieth-century computing, and thus the two most influential figures in the world, never met each other.
We type away at our screens now and maybe the excitement of those early days has gone. We just get on with it. We don’t need to know how computers work, nor the names of the pioneers behind the technology we use every day. We need only know how to use them and how to negotiate the network traffic, just as we don’t have to know how cars work, only how to drive them. In the early days of motoring, the days of magnetos, chokes, crank handles, double de-clutching, and sparkplugs, there was a lot of smoke, rainwater leakage, stuttering, and failure, but damn it must have been exciting. As Douglas and I went around to each other’s places and played with our brand new Macs there was much freezing and failing, much head-scratching and perplexity, much frustration and shouting, but oh my heavens was it ever fun.
Well there we are - one paragraph above was compounded of lies, the rest is as true as I and my memory can make it. Welcome to my SubStack world… and don’t worry it shan’t be composed entirely of stories about computers and technology.
Until our next merry meeting … goodbye.