I’ve always enjoyed first person accounts of the beginning of the computer age. What was it like to be there? How did people view new technologies before they became part of our everyday lives? I’ve put together a list of some of my favorite magazine articles that capture that feeling. My previous blog post on The First Computer Interface captures that sentiment and here are 5 more. Most of the articles are on Kevin Kelly’s list of Best Magazine Articles Ever (with the exception of Inside The Deal That Made Bill Gates $350,000,000). Here are five articles about the beginning of…
- Silicon Valley (The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce by Tom Wolfe, Esquire Magazine, December 1983) Robert Noyce founded two of the most important startups in Silicon Valley — Intel and its predecessor Fairchild Semiconductor. Tom Wolfe (yes, that Tom Wolfe) wrote about Noyce exporting the Midwestern Congregationalist ethic to create the modern culture of Silicon Valley. Noyce believed in a strict meritocracy. Wolfe writes “Noyce’s idea was that every employee should feel that he could go as far and as fast in this industry as his talent would take him…. When they first moved into the building, Noyce worked at an old, scratched, secondhand metal desk. As the company expanded, Noyce kept the same desk, and new stenographers, just hired, were given desks that were not only newer but bigger and better than his.” At the same time that Noyce was founding Silicon Valley, another set of small town Midwesterners were sending men into space. After the success of the Apollo 11 mission, NASA’s administrator, Tom Paine, happened to remark in conversation: “This was the triumph of the squares.” This may have been the first reference to geeks conquering the earth (and space).
- Hacking (Secrets of the Little Blue Box by Ron Rosenbaum, Esquire, 10/1971) The original hackers were called “phone phreaks.” These were kids who figured out a weakness in the AT&T telephone system that they could exploit. By putting a 2600 hertz tone to their mouthpiece, they could trick the phone company into giving them free calls. The most famous of the phone phreaks was John Draper (aka Captain Crunch) who discovered that a whistle given away in the children’s cereal gave off the magic tone. He also taught Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak how to phone phreak. The phone hackers exemplified the original hacker ethic — to explore a giant system to see how it worked. Of course, like modern hackers, some got a little carried away by the exploration. By the end of the article Rosenbaum writes a little bit about many of the phone phreaks started getting into computer hacking — which was quite a feat in 1971. There was a great documentary on the history of hacking from Captain Crunch to Steve Wozniak to Kevin Mitnick that does a great “where are they now” of hacking.
- Video Games (Spacewar by Stewart Brand, Rolling Stone, 11/7/1972) Stewart Brand wrote a fantastic piece on Spacewar — the world’s first video game. Spacewar was written before anyone had thought about putting graphics on a computer. Its hardware didn’t even have a multiply or divide function. Brand talks about the computer geeks at Stanford and MIT who were writing the first computer programs meant to be used by other people (as opposed to writing programs to solve a specific numeric problem.) One of the most entertaining program names was a word processing system called “Expensive Typewriter.” At the time, the intranet only had 20 computers but people were starting to understand that if it took hold, this would be the transformation of the news and recording industries. As a side note, there is computer code at the end of the article — probably the only time code was ever published in Rolling Stone magazine.
- Microsoft (Inside The Deal That Made Bill Gates $350,000,000, Bro Uttal, Fortune, 7/21/1984) You don’t hear much about Bill Gates these days — a man who seems focused on his privacy. The Guardian published an interview with Gates this summer where the most interesting tidbit was that his children liked to tease him by singing the song Billionaire by Bruno Mars. But Microsoft was a very different company in 1984, when a 30 year old Bill Gates invited Fortune Magazine to spend five months with him while they went through their IPO. This is one of the few journalistic tales of an IPO ever written. The editor’s note reads “I doubt that a story like this has been published before or is likely to be done again.” It’s amazing to see an early Microsoft where Bill Gates used part of the $1.6 million cash he made on the offering to pay off a $150,000 mortgage. He also decided to keep the stock’s initial IPO value below $500MM which he felt was uncomfortably high. But the most interesting insight that Uttal has into the young Gates is that he was “something of a ladies’ man and a fiendishly fast driver who has racked up speeding tickets even in the sluggish Mercedes diesel he bought to restrain himself.”
- Blogging: (You’ve Got Blog, Rebecca Mead, The New Yorker, 11/13/2000) When I first read this article in 2000, I was introduced me to many things “Blog” including the word “Blog” and “Blogger” as well as some of the original bloggers: Evhead, Megnut and Kottke.org. Kottke.org is still one of my favorite blogs after a decade. Like many start ups, Blogger was a side project that was written over a weekend. Pyra (their parent company) was supposed to be making project management software. It’s interesting to see how early bloggers were the mavericks of modern social networking (though some ideas like putting themselves on webcams 24/7 have thankfully gone away). Blogs made it easier for “regular” people to post — and Social Networking makes it even easier. Facebook in many ways is just the extension of that — allowing everyone to have their own webpage.
As an added bonus, it’s worth reading the book Nudist on the Late Shift by Po Bronson. Po gives a wonderful history on what it was like to be part of the Silicon Valley tech boom of the late 90’s. Po’s book was so compelling that it pulled many newcomers to the Valley. He felt slightly bad about this after the bust and started apologizing.