Errol Morris, the famous documentary director of The Thin Blue Line and other films wrote a great piece in the New York Times called Did My Brother Invent E-Mail With Tom Van Vleck? (Parts 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5). As it turns out, Morris’s brother, Noel Morris, worked at MIT on CTSS, which was the predecessor of Multics, which was the predecessor of Unix, which was the predecessor of all the computers that run the internet as well as the Mac OS. Noel was also the person who (along with Tom Van Vleck) wrote the first email program on CTSS.
Morris writes an homage to his brother that looks at some of the very early history of the human computer interface design. In fact, CTSS was the first human computer interface to really exist. These were typewriters jury rigged to a computer to allow interactive input. Before that, programmers had to write programs on punch cards which wasn’t much of an interface at all. Fernando Corbato, one of the founders of time sharing computing systems describes frustrating computers were at the time:
FERNANDO CORBATÓ: Back in the early ‘60s, computers were getting bigger. And were expensive. So people resorted to a scheme called batch processing. It was like taking your clothes to the laundromat. You’d take your job in, and leave it in the input bins. The staff people would prerecord it onto these magnetic tapes. The magnetic tapes would be run by the computer. And then, the output would be printed. This cycle would take at best, several hours, or at worst, 24 hours. And it was maddening, because when you’re working on a complicated program, you can make a trivial slip-up — you left out a comma or something — and the program would crash. It was maddening. People are not perfect. You would try very hard to be careful, but you didn’t always make it. You’d design a program. You’d program it. And then you’d have to debug it and get it to work right. A process that could take, literally, a week, weeks, months —
But visionaries like J. C. R. Licklider realized that computers could be more than a processing device but an extension of a person’s abilities. His paper “Man-Computer Symbiosis” with one of the first descriptions of the interdependence that humans and computers would eventually have:
The fig tree is pollinated only by the insect Blastophaga grossorum. The larva of the insect lives in the ovary of the fig tree, and there it get its food. The tree and the insect are thus heavily interdependent: the tree cannot reproduce without the insect; the insect cannot eat without the tree; together, they constitute not only a viable but a productive and thriving partnership…
Man-computer symbiosis is a subclass of man-machine systems. There are many man-machine systems. At present, however, there are no man-computer symbioses… The hope is that, in not too many years, human brains and computing machines will be coupled together very tightly, and that the resulting partnership will think as no human brain has ever thought and process data in a way not approached by the information-handling machines we know today.
In this post, I’d like to point out how the creation of the first time sharing machines and email are to many of the product management challenges that people still have today.
1. Showing is more powerful than telling:
FERNANDO CORBATÓ: “So that was mostly to convince the skeptics that it was not an impossible task, and also, to get people to get a feel for interactive computing. It was amazing to me, and it is still amazing, that people could not imagine what the psychological difference would be to have an interactive terminal. You can talk about it on a blackboard until you are blue in the face, and people would say, ‘Oh, yes, but why do you need that?’ You know, we used to try to think of all these analogies, like describing it in terms of the difference between mailing a letter to your mother and getting [her] on the telephone. To this day I can still remember people only realizing when they saw a real demo, say, ‘Hey, it talks back. Wow! You just type that and you got an answer.’”
The article does a very good job of showing vs. telling by creating an email simulator that provides an interactive demonstration of how the original email program worked on the CTSS. It’s much more arcane than you would imagine — even to the point of using typewriters. Try hitting the backspace button when you’re typing a message and see what happens.
2. Give an early version to your users because you never know how they might use it
The strongest impacts of an emergent technology are always unanticipated. You can’t know what people are going to do until they get their hands on it and start using it on a daily basis, using it to make a buck and using it for criminal purpose and all the different things that people do.
— William Gibson, interviewed in The Paris Review, Art of Fiction #211
The original time sharing machines were created to make programming and debugging much easier. But to the engineers surprise, people wanted to share data with each other on the machine. In many ways this was the first computer mediated social network.
TOM VAN VLECK: The idea of time-sharing was to make one big computer look like a lot of different little computers that were completely unconnected to each other. But it turned out that what people really liked about time-sharing was the ability to share data. And so one person would type in a program and then he’d want to give that disk file to someone else. And this was a surprise to the initial CTSS developers who didn’t realize that was going to happen. It’s one of the things that led us to build a new operating system after CTSS — Multics — which was able to do that better. When we wanted to send mail the idea was that you would type a message into a program running on your account and then mail would switch to your addressee’s account and deposit the message there. Only a privileged command that was very carefully written to not do anything bad could do that. And so we had to become trusted enough to be able to write that thing.
3. Incumbents often miss the boat in a big wayIBM Missed the boat on the computing technology but they eventually recovered.
MARVIN MINSKY: Marvin Minsky, one of the early members of Project MAC and director of its AI group, provides an account of an early meeting about time-sharing at IBM. IBM was committed to batch processing. It was part of their business model. “In fact, we went to visit IBM about using a computer with multiple terminals. And the research director at IBM thought that was a really bad idea. We explained the idea, which is that each time somebody presses a key on a terminal it would interrupt the program that the computer was running and jump over to switch over to the program that was not running for this particular person. And if you had 10 people typing on these terminals at five or 10 characters a second that would mean the poor computer was being interrupted 100 times per second to switch programs. And this research director said, ‘Well why would you want to do that?’ We would say, ‘Well it takes six months to develop a program because you run a batch and then it doesn’t work. And you get the results back and you see it stopped at instruction 94. And you figure out why. And then you punch a new deck of cards and put it in and the next day you try again. Whereas with time-sharing you could correct it — you could change this instruction right now and try it again. And so in one day you could do 50 of these instead of 100 days.’ And he said, ‘Well that’s terrible. Why don’t people just think more carefully and write the program so they’re not full of bugs?’”
A far bigger loser was the Post Office
TOM VAN VLECK: Well, I remember vaguely discussing it with people and worrying about what the U.S. Post Office would think of [e-mail] and whether they would tell us not to do it, or tell us that they had to be involved in it.
ERROL MORRIS: Well, secretly, you were trying to put the post office out of business.
TOM VAN VLECK: We didn’t realize that at the time, but we were afraid that they would want us to destroy a first class stamp every time we sent a mail message.
ERROL MORRIS: Really! There would be Noel Morris and Tom Van Vleck stamps.
United States Postal Service
TOM VAN VLECK: We didn’t want to ask them because we were afraid they would say, “No, of course not.” Or, “We have a monopoly on that.” Which they did. In those days if you sent a box by UPS and you put a letter in the box, you were supposed to destroy a first class stamp.
ERROL MORRIS: Is that true?
TOM VAN VLECK: Oh, yes. The U.S. post office had a monopoly on sending mail. So, we didn’t ask until finally some years later, one of the professors at MIT ran into somebody from the Post Office advanced development organization, or whatever it was, at a conference and said, “Hey, we have this thing. Are you concerned with that, are you interested in it?” And he said, “Oh no, forget it, we’re not interested in that.” And we said, “Great, thanks. That’s what we were hoping to hear.” We didn’t ask again.