Holes In The Histories
- In Slaughterhouse 5, Vonneguts protagonist, Pilgrim, is in a hospital
ward adjacent to a writer discussing a book hes working on about the
bombing of Dresden in World War II. Pilgrim offers information, telling him
that he was in Dresden at the time. The writer is uninterested in facts that
might upset his planned book and suggests that Pilgrim write his own version.
I have often been in Pilgrims place in discussions with authors writing
on events in which I have played a role. I know that merely having been there,
or even having been a principal, does not give one a privileged portal to
the truth. Though since Copernicus the motions of our planet are no longer
seen as geocentric, our individual worlds egocentrically revolve around
ourselves. Indeed, we cannot see events except from inside our own minds though
we can attempt to provide tests of our recollection via various lines of physical
and testimonial evidence.
The popular media has a poor track record of presenting the recent history
of technology, at least with regard to the commercial side of the story of
how human-computer interfaces came to be the way they are. I wondered where
the incorrect information had come from and why the authors didnt pick
up a phone and call the people involvedits not as if this is ancient
history and all the principals and their relatives are long dead (though time
is running short in this regard). Had the reporters quest for truth
and the historians thirst for facts evaporated? Before looking at the
reasons for the inaccuracies, I should perhaps first explain how I happen
to be in a position to write somewhat authoritatively on this topic:
- In the spring of 1979 I went to the Chairman of the Board of Directors of
Apple, Mike Markkula, and proposed that Apple build a new kind of computer.
It was to be inexpensive; have a small footprint; use a built-in, graphics-based
screen; andmy most heretical point it would be based on human
factors considerations rather than driven by whatever was hottest in electronic
technology at the moment. My name for this project was "Macintosh".
Having introduced the concept of human interface development as a discipline
at Apple, and being one of the early observers of the work at Xeroxs
famous Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), I have subsequently been astonished,
amazed, disappointed, and at times upset by what Ive read. Even the
prestigious Harvard Business Review got the basic facts of the origin of the
Macintosh interface nearly backwards. This is especially distressing since
Harvard teaches business partly through case studies. Fed fictions as facts,
it is not unreasonable to fear that the students understanding may suffer
accordingly. Occasionally, I have written a letter to correct one or another
error that appeared in print. Sometimes these letters had the effect of influencing
future articles, sometimes they disappeared without a trace, and once or twice
they were loudly refuted by people who hadnt been there and had no documentation
behind their theories.
There have been many books on the history of Apple, some by or about its major
players, and in 1994, the 10th anniversary of the commercial introduction
of the Macintosh and the 15th anniversary of the projects inception,
a new rash (in three senses of the word: a plethora; hasty; a pox) of books
and articles appeared. Where these works discussed events where I was not
a participant I found them interesting and credible until it occurred to me
that if the sections where I knew what had happened were wrong (sometimes
wildly so) then why should I expect that the rest was accurate? My own collection
of contemporaneous drawings, memos, and letters often allows me to fix a date
or assign credit accurately; but reporters and writers have not asked to search
through this materialor probably most of that in the hands of othersfor
themselves. A number of times I have offered free access, but to no avail.
There are a number of reasons the historical accuracy has been so bad, and
they range from the subtle to the banal. Some writers take a cavalier attitude
toward history while others indulge in the crass opportunism that explicitly
eschews facts if they would either take an effort to check out or interfere
with the attractiveness of the story line in terms of possible movie or TV
- Lets start with an elementary technique of serious historians: using
primary sources whenever possible. Looking at the references in the two most
recent books, Levys Insanely Great and Strosss Steve Jobs and
the Next Big Thing, one observes that they are almost all secondary, taken
from earlier books, magazine articles, or newspaper accounts. Rarely are original
documents cited; in-depth interviews with participants are only a bit more
common. Replication of errors made a decade ago cover the pages like an algal
bloom. The more books of this sort that are published, the more "sources"
one can find that agree on a "fact." Eventually the fabrication
becomes indisputable on the basis that "everybody says so. Look, I have
seven references on it." Uncritical use of secondary sources is a major
problem. But searching through tens of thousands of pages of documents is
hard, time-consuming work, and conducting repeated interviews to sort out
inconsistencies is a bother. The overwhelming impression one gets is that
work and bother are off-putting to todays authorsand as we shall
soon see, some freely admit this.
- Thomas Morton was writing of the history of science (in American Scientist,
Vol. 82, pg. 182) but his observation fits technology as well: "Historians
often reason from the internal evidence...but [in science and technology]
a parallelism between two accounts cannot reliably be used to infer that one
influenced another (or even that they were influenced by a common source.)"
It is easier to attribute every invention to one person or organization rather
than have to untangle the unwieldy web of the way things happen. If the same
idea crops up in two places, it is easiest to assume that one must have taken
it from the other. Combine this kind of simplification with an avoidance of
primary sources and you can wander far from the truth. For example, in Strosss
book he speaks of Xeroxs Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), "...
like Old Testament genealogy, every important development in personal computers
traces back to this same single source ." To be sure, PARCs influence
was broad, deep, and beneficial, but it was by no means the "single source"
of "every important development." Strosss blanket claim ignores
the influence of Sutherlands far earlier Sketchpad system, Englebarts
prior conception of the mouse and windows, that the all-important invention
of the microprocessor itself did not take place at PARC, and that the people
who created the early personal computers (Apple I, SOL, Poly 88, Heath H8,
IMSAI, Altair, PET, etc.) generally knew nothing of and took nothing from
PARC. Many significant examples of influential software that did not derive
from PARCs work, such as the systems written by Bill Gates, Gary Kildall,
and Steve Wozniak also come to mind.
Strangely, by misattributing everything to PARC, the true contribution of
PARC (insofar as we can evaluate it at such a small historical distance) is
also diminished. A blanket "everything" often leaves the impression
that what you see on the Mac and Windows is the sum of what PARC did. But
the people at PARC have done much more than that, not only with regard to
interfaces, but in many other independent and collateral areas of computer
science, and they continue to do significant and pioneering work.
I can give an example from my own experience that combines a few of the sources
of error discussed so far. In the late 1960s I had come to realize the
importance of what is now called WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) displays.
It would not do to have a limited set of fonts on a display and a different
set of fonts on paper, for example. So, at a time when hardware character
generators were universal for computer displays (they could usually generate
one ugly font, with underlining, brightness reversal, and blinking as the
sole typographic options), I published a proposal that argued that computers
would have to be built without them. A few years later, in the early 70s,
the researchers at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) came to the same
conclusion independently, and started building computers embodying this idea.
The workers at PARC also believed as I did that human usability was more important
than the traditional concerns of computer science at the time: execution speed
and the efficient use of memory. When I visited PARC shortly after it was
opened, I found, for the first time, a computer-oriented community that was
sympathetic to my work. On their part they found an outsider who did not have
to be convinced that what they were doing was important or headed in the right
direction. If Stross or Levy had gone back and read the works I had written
before PARC was founded, or even interviewed the people I had known at PARC,
they would have learned that many of the Macs key concepts had had an
Another problem with books on the history of Silicon Valley is a dearth of
simple facts checking. Jeffrey Youngs book Steve Jobs, published in
1988, is one of a number that not only share the same flaws as the books Ive
already mentioned but is especially weak on details. My copys margins
are full of comments such as "No," "False," and "Not
quite." I found myself inserting the names of the actual people involved
in a number of places. Even easy-to-check details are flubbed, the go-go-dancer-and-poet-turned
computer maven Bana Witt becomes "Bana Whitt" (she deserves a book
of her own). Young makes the truly absurd claim that I "saw no need for
graphics," in the Macintosh product and so forth. Some books are better
than others in this regard (the Time-Life series on personal computers is
one of the better ones, Owen Linzmayers The Mac Bathroom Reader is significantly
better than the others), but it is clear that the editors, even at such established
companies as Viking; Scott Foresman and Co.; Harper & Row; and Basic Books,
give little weight to accuracy of detail. John Sculleys book, Odyssey,
(written with John A. Byrne) says that I was a "programmer" at Apple;
I held many positions at Apple, but programmer was never one of them. I assume
that I havent been singled out for inaccurate treatment and that an
equal percentage of errors apply to other people and events.
Another cause for inaccuracy is the deliberate misleading of reporters, coupled
with some reporters tendency to believe an apparently sincere and/or
famous source. Levys book gives prominent thanks to Apples PR
department, which learned the history of the Mac from Steve Jobs, whose well-deserved
sobriquet at Apple (and later at NeXT) was "reality distortion field."
Many times I had seen him baldly tell a lie to suppliers, reporters, employees,
investors, and to me; Strosss book provides many examples of this. When
caught, Jobss tactic was to apologize profusely and appear contrite;
then hed do it again. His charm and apparent sincerity took in nearly
everybody he dealt with, even after theyd been burnt a few times. For
those who didnt know him he seemed utterly credible. In his defense
it should be pointed out that some reality distortion is necessary when you
are pioneering: when I am conveying my vision of the future I create a non-existent
world in the minds of listeners and try to convince them that it is desirable
and even inevitable. Im pretty good at this, but Jobs is a master, unconstrained
by "maybe" and "probably." His attractive creation-mythswallowed
whole by susceptible reporterswherein Apples computers were invented
exclusively by college drop-outs and intuitive engineers flying by the seats
of their pants became legend. To hear him tell it, the Macintosh had practically
been born, homespun, in Abe Lincolns log cabin. That it had been spawned
by an ex-professor and computer-center director with an advanced degree in
computer science would have blown the myth away. A good story will often beat
out the dull facts into print.
For example, after Byte Magazine published the "official" version
of the creation of the Mac as a cover story in 1984, two enterprising reporters
(John Markoff and Ezra Shapiro), acting partly on my comments to them about
that article, interviewed the actual crew that started the Mac. The follow-up
article was buried toward the back of the magazine, under the weak title "Macintosh's
Other Designers." It received, predictably, little attention.
THE HALO EFFECT
This effect causes every invention to be attributed to the leader, most charismatic,
or currently most newsworthy member of a group. For example, before Steve
Jobss fumbling at NeXT exposed his weaknesses, he was usually credited
with having invented the Macintosh. As his star was declining and NeXT beat
one strategic retreat after another, General Magiccofounded by Bill
Atkinson and Andy Hertzfeld who had both worked on the first Macwas
announcing its first product amidst much hoopla. Thus I found, in the Dec
27 1993 / Jan 3 1994 issue of InfoWorld a story erroneously hailing Bill Atkinson
and Andy Hertzfeld as the creators of the original Macintosh. As John Sculley
(after leaving Apple) was ending his brief tenure as CEO of Spectrum under
notorious circumstances, a National Public Radio report incorrectly described
himinstead of Jobs and Woz (Steve Wozniak)as the founder of Apple.
The halo effect also assigns superhuman abilities to the famous, often overcoming
a reporters credulity: Jeffrey Young writes of the first time that Steve
Jobs (along with Atkinson and others) saw the work done at PARC. "Atkinson
and the others were asking Tesler questions, one after the other. Tesler was
quoted as saying, What impressed me was that their questions were better
than any I had heard in the seven years I had been at Xerox... Their questions
showed that they understood the implications and the subtleties... "
But Young did not ask why they had such a high level and rapid understanding
that no other mortals could achieve; the halo effect had blinded him. The
real reason for their near-instantaneous grasp is that they had been carefully
prepared for the visit. I had repeatedly explained the details and rationale
of the work at PARC to Atkinson, Jobs and others. PARCs philosophy was therefore
well known at Apple. Tesler didnt know about this background, wasnt
told, and so was bowled over.
GOING BY APPEARANCES
Prior to the coming of the microprocessor, the computer industry (exemplified
by IBM) was a bastion of corporate formality. When I was invited in the 1960s
to give a talk to IBM executives about new directions in computer applications
I chose to go tieless in blue jeans and flannel shirt since I thought this
would lend some shock value to my presentation. The talk went well, but when
I was invited to join my host for lunch, I was stopped at the door to the
cafeteria by a uniformed IBM employee. He said, "You cant come
in, sir, without jacket and tie."
My hosts had long-since forgotten the rule; nobody even thought of working
or visiting IBM in attire such as mine. We had no extra tie or jacket, and
were at an impasse until someone went ahead, took off his jacket and tie and
tossed them back to me. Apparently, the rule was that you could not enter
without a tie, but there was no rule about taking it off once inside. Dress
codes were then typical of the computer establishment, so when some of the
microcomputer companies started up, they not only abandoned the technical
methods of the big computer companies but made a point of also throwing out
the trappings. This was especially true at Apple. Properly-dressed reporters
who visited in the early days, accustomed as they were to traditional computer
companies, found the un-computer-company style at least as remarkable as the
products. Our penchant for odd dress and irreverent play (frisbees in the
hallways and the like) conveyed the spirit of the products and obscured the
serious work going on in the cubicles. Our then-unusual lifestyle made good
PR that could reach audiences otherwise uninterested in computers, and gave
the products an aura of fun and novelty rather than work and stodginess. This
was great marketing, but it was also a smoke screen, one that has continued
to befuddle reporters to this day. Many continue to take a penchant for play
, eccentric mannerisms, and eclectic dress as a disinclination to do hard
and serious work.
THE IRRELEVANCE OF TRUTH
The last cause for inaccuracy that I will take up is an overcasual attitude
and a kind of arrogance on the part of some writers. It is rare to get an
explicit admission of this, but I must tip my hat to Robert Cringely, who
writes a delightful column that appears weekly in InfoWorld, a computer trade
journal. In his book on Silicon Valley events, Accidental Empires, he has
the Mac and Lisa (an Apple computer that didnt make it commercially)
projects being created by Steve Jobs after Jobs made the visit to PARC "in
1980" and came back all aglow with inspiration.
I emailed to Cringely to point out that his booklike those of a number
of other authorswas wrong; Jobs had indeed made a visit in December,
1979 but the Mac project was proposed in the spring and was officially started
in September, 1979. In other words, the project was well under way before
the event that was supposed to have inspired it took place. Cringely was unabashed.
He emailed back: "As for all the business of what project started when,
whether Lisa started before or after Steve visited PARC, whether the Mac had
already begun or not, well I dont think that it really matters very
much. My attempt was to EXPLAIN (I say that at the front of the book), not
to be a historian."
How an author can hope to explain what happened if he doesnt even know
what happened eludes me.
Later I discovered that the people he interviewed were mostly Apples
PARC expatriates, their association with Apple began after the Mac was well
under way. Thus they could only tell him about the development of the ideas
at PARC and about the work on Lisa (they were not then associated with the
Macintosh project) after some time in 1980that is after Apple was committed
to the basic direction the Mac group had already established. Not terribly
aware of that work, they related what they saw only to what they knew from
Its not only books, of course, but other mass-media that have presented
a confused view. The PBS special on the history of computers made the same
mistake of attributing the genesis of the Mac to Jobs visit to PARC.
When I sent the correct information to Jon Palfreman, its producer at WGBH,
he replied, "The part of the program you are referring to comes at the
end of a lengthy segment about the highly innovative work done at Xerox PARC.
This section was based on extensive interviews with Alan Kay, Bob Taylor and
Larry Tesler. The purpose was to show that the key concepts of interface design
which today are a feature of most PCs (if you count Windows) were first discussed
at Xerox PARC. When those ideas were embodied in a relatively affordable machinethe
Macintoshthey began to change the world of personal computing. I was
aware of your key role in the Macintosh project, and indeed of the contribution
of people who developed Lisa. My aim in this particular program wasn't to
detail the history of Apple but to show how the key interface ideas found
their way into consumer PCs."
His excuse sounds much like Cringelys, for he cannot "show how
the key interface ideas found their way into consumer PCs" without detailing
the history of Apple, which is where it happened. And, of course, some of
the key concepts had already been discussed prior to the founding of PARC.
Errors of this sort force us to wonder about the accuracy of the rest of the
The years of study, thinking, and experimentation by many talented people
on the Macintosh projectand elsewherehave gone largely unreported,
though they led to the breakthroughs that made the Macintosh and the systems
that have been built since its introduction so much of an improvement over
what went before. Against this complex reality we have the powerful mythological
image of Jobs drinking from a Well Of All Knowledge, having an "aha!"
experience and coming back at full cry to Apple to create a fantastic project.
This scenario is familiarit parallels that of Archimedes jumping naked
out of his bath crying "Eureka!" and a dozen other stories. It inverts
Edisons observation that "Genius is one percent inspiration and
ninety-nine percent perspiration." When Cringely reported in his InfoWorld
column for 4 April 1994 that his book was being made into a TV miniseries,
he crowed that it represented "the ultimate triumph of style over substance"
One can admire his candor while deploring his scholarship and envying his
earnings. 2,400 years ago the historian Thucydides had a higher calling, "My
history has been composed to be an everlasting possession, not the showpiece
of an hour." Today we get shows that air for an hour.
Along with oversimplification, using secondary sources, being weak on background,
a lack of attention to detail, getting taken in by the halo effect, and a
general attitude problem among some of the people who have reported on the
history of technology, there has been a belief in things happening by magic.
Intense intellectual effort and in-depth technical expertise vanish to be
replaced by tales of inspiration and guesswork. The legend tells us that scholarship
and hard work are not necessary in order to usher in a new age. Yet the same
legends speak with awe of the 80+ hour-per-week grind of the faithful, driven
employees. What were they doing all those hours? Drop out, turn on, assume
the lotus position, eat jelly beans, have pizza-and-beer parties and fortune
will surely follow, sing the storytellers. The truth lies elsewhere.
One of the most reliable sources of information on who did what and when is
in the "Book of Macintosh," a collection of documents written by
the members of the Mac team for the first few years of the project. Here is
the beginning of one that I only recently (December 1994) ran across when
a researcher sent a copy to me. The date alone suffices to settle the question
of whether the Mac project was started after Mr. Jobss later trip to
Xerox PARC. This particular document is noteworthy in that it shows that Apple
was still debating internally whether personal computers would be useful in
the home. Also, it was not until a decade and a half later that Apple finally
decided to create its own online service, an effort that I see as being rather
late on the scene.
And I will admit to some pride in having foreseen, with reasonable accuracy,
the applications of such a service. The following excerpt is unedited, even
the embarrassing errors of spelling left unfixed.
THE MACINTOSH PROJECT
DOCUMENT 3 VERSION 5
TITLE: THE APPLE COMPUTER NETWORK
AUTHOR: JEF RASKIN
DATE: 11 Sep 79-11 Oct 79
There are very few potential uses of the personal computer per se in the home
at the present time. The question "What do you do with it?" still
haunts the industry. While balancing checkbooks, playing chess and writing
letters are all viable uses, it is likely that a true mass market cannot be
supported on the basis of such applications. In the face of this problem,
most manufacturers, seeing the hobbyist and technophile markets becoming saturated,
have turned to marketing business systems. The business system market is big
and legitimate opportunities abound there, but the volume can never be as
large as it would be for an item that goes to consumers in general.
There is a feeling in the industry that telecommunications will become a key
part of every computer market segment, and this is increasingly becoming so.
Many experiments and a few successful services are in operation. Aside from
long-standing timesharing systems such as GE and TYMSHARE, we have the ARPA
net, Xerox's internal Ethernet, TCA (alias "The Source"), Prestel,
the MECC network, and many others. Appendix 1 lists a few commercial services
that may be of interest to us. A set of "underground" message centers
have come into operation, for example, the PCNET. There are also a few other
individuals and small groups that set up a microcomputer with an autoanswer
modem and some software that allows users to leave and retrieve messages.
According to "Computer Retailer", Radio Shack and Western Union
are working out some cooperative venture involving WU's "Mailgram"
service whereby Radio Shack computer owners can exchange messages.
It is clear that one answer to the question "What do you do with it?"
will probably be: "I use it to send birthday greetings to Aunt Tillie."
More to the point there are a number of easily forseen potential uses for
a network of personal computers. What is more exciting is that, as has happened
with the computers themselves, there is the potential for many unforseen applications.
1.2 POSSIBLE APPLICATION AREAS
Many applications have been put forward. Among them are:
Time of day; News (with a boolean query data base); Stock Market (as per what
we are already doing); Soap Opera Condensations; A guide to local TV programs
(what's on at 9:00PM?, any westerns tonight?); Message forwarding and distribution;
Fax transmission (special case of message: the bits are interpreted pictorially);
Weather Travel Info; Phone directory; Local, area or national business directory;
Apple program distribution channel; Apple update distribution channel; Access
to Lockheed's DIALOG or Stanford's BALLOTS systems or similar ones; A better
way to answer user questions than a phone based hotline at Apple; Library
of Congress card catalog; Legal precedents; Program exchange; Educational
courses; Educational testing; Voting; Computer program exchange; Advertising;
Computer dating; Tax information; Banking (another step to the cashless society
(If taxes don't reduce us to a cashless state first)); Access to large data
storage for individual needs; Access to computer power (i.e. timesharing);
Insurance quotes; Credit information (what is available: what is my status);
Market research; Purchasing information (who has the cheapest refrigerator
model 34- aa within 10 miles); Plane schedules; Dictionary and Encyclopedia
The list is potentially endless. Most come under one heading: Access to a
Data Base. A few come under the heading: Communication. The remaining handful
The point of this list is that telecommunications provides a host of answers
to the "What do you do with it?" question.