When Mice Were Wooden

Published Date
01 - Jun - 2006
| Last Updated
01 - Jun - 2006
When Mice Were Wooden
"History is bunk," flatly and famously stated Henry Ford in 1916. We don't quite agree. Sure, we can let bygones be bygones, but if what was done a fifty or a hundred years ago endures, if it has changed the way we live, if it has enriched our lives-we're interested. What was computing like when there were no mice and-the horror of it!-no colour displays? A passion for technology is not limited to checking out the latest graphics cards. We want to know how it all happened: how we got married to the phenomenon called technology.

This is not a history lesson. It's a celebration of five decades of tech, and not to forget, a tribute to the men who made it all happen.

So, while the hippies were lying on the grass and getting stoned, not everyone was convinced that that was where the good life was. Researchers in corporate and university labs were, for the ultimate good of mankind, engaged in serious work (yes, there was a lot of that in the '60s, too). And they weren't working on their laptops from the comfort of their homes: they got down to the dirty, as in actual hands-on work with primitive components. A few dreamers here and there wrote seminal papers. And companies-some small, some large-introduced devices, some that fizzled out, some that endured.

The audio cassette, invented in this decade, endured. It started off the whole portable music thing. Of course, it was the Walkman, brought out much later, that actually put cassettes to good use.

Laser mice and multi-button mice are all fine, but how about a word of thanks to Doug Engelbart, who invented the device in the  '60s? It was a "primitive" device-carved from (ugh) wood-but it did the job. (Actually, wooden mice seem to us a cool retro idea-we found a couple on eBay!) While on the subject of inventions, Xerox came out with the Telecopier-the first successful fax machine. And if you can think of a programming language as an invention, BASIC - as in VB, only a lot less capable-was invented this decade. Ah, the simple joys of life! LET x=10; LET y=20; LET a = x y; PRINT a! That was probably the first program many of us at Digit ever wrote…

…because BASIC really was pretty basic, and became popular with folks learning to program. We were surprised when our in-house programmer told us it's been around since the '60s!

If you can imagine a world with no computer games, you don't need to think beyond the '60s-that was when the first video game came out: Spacewar!. It generated no little excitement-people liked the idea of actually being able to use their computers for business as well as pleasure, and wherever there were computers-mostly labs-Spacewar was being played.

You might or might not believe how simple Spacewar! was. It was a two-player game, and each player controlled a spaceship, meaning a little white blotch on the screen. There was a star that pulled you towards it-and you had to avoid the star. The players shot at each other: the bullets were little dots. Take a look for yourself-you can play a Java version of the original game at https://lcs.www.media.mit. edu/ groups/el/projects/spacewar/

Actually, the first video game wasn't Spacewar! either. Spacewar! was the first game "intended for computer use," according to some sources. The first "graphical computer game" is "widely believed" to have been Tic-Tac-Toe (or "Noughts and Crosses," depending on your source) by A S  Douglas in 1952. According to pong-story.com, "the game was played against the machine. Once the game started, the player specified where he wanted to place his nought or cross using a mechanical telephone dialler." (!) Not much of a game-and we think we can safely say Spacewar! was "the first computer game."

It might come as a surprise that robotics predates computers (the way we think of them, at least). In 1961 was marketed the first industrial robot. And in 1969 was invented the Stanford Arm, the first electrically-powered, computer-controlled robot arm. Talking about robotics, where was AI? Well, it was there, and the research being done back then doesn't seem primitive compared to what's being done today. OK, a lot has been done since then, but think about how much we've done and how far we need to go. They were developing chat-bots and neural networks back then, and we're developing chat-bots and neural networks now as well.
Still, the point is that a lot of work done back then was seminal. AI was in vogue. Frank Rosenblatt built, in 1960, the Perceptron-a sort of computer that could actually learn by trial and error. It employed a neural network. (Neural networks themselves were already in existence.) And then in 1966 happened Eliza, probably the most famous chat-bot of all time. Joseph Weizenbaum developed Eliza at MIT: "she" was a psychiatrist, and would chat with people primarily in consulting mode. "Tell me more about your mother." "Does that make you feel depressed?" You can find a Web version of the original Eliza at www-ai.ijs.si/eliza/eliza .html.

Why was Eliza important? Mostly because it proved that something like a chat-bot could be built; people were fascinated by the fact that a computer seemed to be exhibiting intelligence.

More in AI: a team at Stanford led by Ed Feigenbaum created DENDRAL, the first expert system. In an expert system, one feeds in as much knowledge in a certain domain as one can into the system, and it analyses the situation and provides answers comparable in quality to what a human expert would propose. What DENDRAL did is not very interesting, but expert systems had come into being. They're used today in many domains, but medicine is one field that has particularly benefited.

Come to think of it, a lot happened in the '60s. Did you think the CD was invented by Philips in the '80s? Not really: the man behind the CD (and therefore, optical storage) was a less-known-today inventor called James Russell. Actually, he invented a complete optical digital recording system, not just the storage medium. In an interview, asked what prompted him to explore the concept of optical recording, Russell's answer was that he developed the technology because he "wanted a better hi-fi system"! Talk about necessity being the mother of…

We won't bore you with details of what research papers were written around this time. But so much tech that we take for granted started off as single research papers! At Rand Corporation, Paul Baran developed, in 1960, the packet-switching principle. This was followed, in 1961, by the first paper on packet-switching theory, by Leonard Kleinrock at MIT: it was called "Information Flow in Large Communication Nets." What talk of the Internet without packet switching?

Coming to the Internet, the first plans for ARPANET were laid out by Larry Roberts, also of MIT, in a 1966 paper called "Towards a Co-operative Network of Time-Shared Computers." ARPANET, as you might know, was what eventually "became the Internet." We'll be talking more, as we should, about ARPANET-it's not as simple as "it was the first Internet." In fact, some of the foundations of the Internet were laid in the 60s: way back in 1960, J C R Licklider published a seminal paper called "Man-Computer Symbiosis." It included these excerpts:

ARPANET, as you might know, was what eventually "became the Internet"

"It seems reasonable to envision, for a time 10 or 15 years hence, a 'thinking center' that will incorporate the functions of present-day libraries together with anticipated advances in information storage and retrieval.

"The picture readily enlarges itself into a network of such centers, connected to one another by wide-band communication lines and to individual users by leased-wire services…"

Sound sufficiently enough like something we're familiar with today?

To avoid hate-mail for having missed out on this point, we must mention that Unix was developed by Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie in 1969 at Bell Labs, the same year Linus Torvalds was born. We don't need to tell you how important that development was.

Yes, much was done in the 1960s, but we think the seventies were even more exciting-and something we can relate to better! Turn the page!

DEC's PDP-1 
There are many, many firsts in the world of personal computing; the DEC PDP-1 is just one of those firsts, but it sounds suspiciously like our PCs. It's been described as the "first commercial computer with a monitor and keyboard input," as the "world's first small, interactive computer," and so on. Essentially, this was the first thing that felt-if not looked-something like what we all have on our desks today. It was an 18-bit machine with a keyboard and a light pen for input. It was small-about the size of a couple of fridges. One of its biggest pluses was that it didn't require specialised air conditioning, and that it could run on standard (US) 110-volt power. Some PDP-1s had CRT graphics display systems, which happened to be the first commercially-available computer graphics terminals.

A PDP-1 at MIT became the first computer on which a game was played: Spacewar!, which became a DEC standard diagnostic program for the rest of the decade. 

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