I used to blog about computer history for Computerworld magazine. The original links may break at any time. Here are six of my favorites presented in alphabetical order.
@ Apple challenger Klausner: Real inventor, not a troll!
@ Dozens of computer pioneer videos now online
@ HP-35 / 35th Anniversary Edition expected soon
@ HP garage joins National Register of Historic Places
@ Jean Bartik, last of the original ENIAC programmers, 86
@ Old programmers never die, they just decompile
Apple challenger Klausner: Real inventor, not a troll!
To be very clear: Judah Klausner, the man behind Klausner Technologies which is currently suing Apple and AT&T for supposed infringement of a voicemail patent, is not a mere troll. His geek cred: long before the iPhone, and 15 years before even the Newton, Klausner's name stood atop one of the first PDA patents -- not because he acquired it but because he helped invent it.
The patent, granted in Sep. 1978, is #4,117,542, Electronic Pocket Directory. Except for an article on my personal web site two years ago (thank you, Slashdot), Klausner's story has never been published. So here is a reprint of the story, edited for space, based on my telephone and email interviews with Klausner and his former business partner Robert Hotto in 2005.
It all started when Klausner, a music major who graduated from New York University in 1973, inspected a friend's pocket calculator one day in 1976. "I was looking at these little calcuators that were very small and had these memory buttons on them, and I didn't know what that meant," he said. His friend explained the mathematical purpose - "I thought, that's dumb, if these things are memory systems why are they so limited?" He asked various technical-minded people about the prospects for expanding a calculator's memory into more useful functions such as a datebook, but most said it wasn't possible with current technology.
Eventually someone connected Klausner with Bob Hotto, also at NYU, who was a senior and physics major. Hotto built the prototype that earned the patent. Meanwhile, Klausner's uncle was Rolodex founder Arnold Neustadter, but they only spoke about advice for conducting patent research -- it wasn't until years later that either party realized the logic of the Rolodex company transitioning its own product line from mechanical to eletronic organizers.
Klausner and Hotto licensed their design to Toshiba, but were turned down by General Instruments and Hewlett-Packard. Apple had its chance, too! Hotto recalled meeting Steve Jobs at the Trenton (N.J.) Computer Festival, but said that Jobs only wanted to talk about the Apple II and wouldn't listen to anything else. If things turned out different, Apple could have had a PDA a dozen years before the Newton was even a concept, and the companies might be allies today instead of courtroom foes.
Meanwhile, Toshiba -- fresh off its original name of "Tokyo Shibaura Electric Co." -- refreshed the patent (which they eventually bought flat-out); the new patent was #4,279,022, "Electronic calculation/memorandum apparatus." Toshiba called the commercial product the LC-836 Memo Note 30. Its primary non-calculator function was to store phone numbers and simple memos. Toshiba in turn licensed it to Tandy/Radio Shack, arriving in stores as the EC-4002 Thin Statesman LCD. It is the same size as a modern thin PDA - about 2-5/8 inches wide, 5-1/2 inches tall, and just over 1/4-inch thick. It has 30 keys, a one-line liquid-crystal display, and was designed for "always-on" mode as with a wristwatch. But there was competition: Klausner and Hotto managed to license their patent to Casio, Sharp, and Sony as well, and eventually Rolodex itself did acquire rights.
Copycat devices followed throughout the late 1970s -- Canon's Palmtronic LC Memo; Sharp's EL-8160, and Toshiba's own LC-1018MN (Memo Note 60), LC-1038MN (Memo Note II), and LC-1019MN (Memo Note III), all of which had unique features such as more memory and alternative physical designs.
So, was the LC-836 the first "real" PDA? There were earlier PDA concepts, such as George Margolin's 1974 invention of a calculator keyboard, Sam Pitroda's 1975 invention of an electronic diary, Nixdorf's LK-3000 pocket language translator, and Casio's 1976 CQ-1 calculator/calendar gadget. But the LC-836, dreamed up by Klausner and built by Hotto, was the first pocket-sized digital device on the market that could store and retrieve alphanumeric records, thereby evolving into something superior to a mere scientific calculator.
Dozens of computer pioneer videos now online
Dozens of videos of recent speeches by pioneers of the computer industry are now on YouTube, thanks to the Computer History Museum, the Mountain View, Calif. organization announced this week.
Many of the CHM's videos already were on its own site, but they partnered with YouTube because of bandwidth issues. An important side effect is that YouTube can bring scores of new viewers who otherwise wouldn't seek out the CHM resources.
In addition to the YouTube videos, there are high-resolution versions and additional videos still available directly from the CHM.
Nothing beats visiting the CHM in person. I've been there four times and there are always new and exciting exhibits, particularly in the "visible storage" warehouse and in system restoration rooms. But I live on the east coast, so attending their lectures is impossible. Video is the next-best option.
HP-35 / 35th Anniversary Edition expected soon
Hewlett-Packard, celebrating the 35th anniversary of the landmark HP-35 "slide rule calculator" announced a contest this week for fans to create and upload videos of their favorite HP-35 memories.
States the press release: "Video entries can take the form of a documentary, commercial or any appropriate theme the contestant envisions, but they must be limited to three minutes in length or 100 megabytes in file size. Entries will be judged by a panel on the basis of best actor, best actress, most creative and most technical. In addition, a Voters’ Choice award will be selected from the category finalists by an online popular vote, and the winner will receive an HP 50-inch High-Definition Plasma TV." (All videos will remain the property of their creators, but HP has the right to use the videos for publicity, a spokeswoman explained.)
HP, in the next few months, will also debut a new calculator related to this anniversary, the spokeswoman said. Details are not yet available, but with the new model HP will probably take an approach similar to last summer's HP-12C Platinum 25th Anniversary Edition calculator that was based on the original model (and here).
If you'd rather read a good book than star in a video, then I highly recommend A Guide to HP Handheld Calculators and Computers by W.A.C. Mier-Jedrzejowicz and RCL 20: People, Dreams and HP Calculators by Mier-Jedrzejowicz and Frank Wales.
HP garage joins National Register of Historic Places
Judging by the number of comments, people seemed to like Hewlett-Packard's recent news about the HP-35, and here's some more from the home office in Palo Alto: Bill Hewlett's famous garage is now on the National Register of Historic Places, reports the San Jose Mercury News.
I visited the garage in 2005. From the outside, it's nothing special -- just a simple structure behind a gate on an otherwise normal suburban street. But when you stop to consider what happened inside that garage, it becomes a very moving experience.
At my user group's museum, where David Packard actually worked for a while when it was a military base, our collection features an HP-300A Harmonic Wave Analyzer. That's a generation or two removed from HP's garage years, but it's still fun to appreciate the connections between their first products and the computer revolution.
To learn more, read the early HP story in Stewart Gillmor's book about Stanford's Fred Terman, which I wrote about here. Or if you haven't already read it, check out Packard's classic, The HP Way.
Jean Bartik, last of the original ENIAC programmers, 86
Jean Bartik, the last of the original ENIAC programmers, died this morning. She was 86.
She was born Betty Jean Jennings, on Dec. 27, 1924 and raised on a Missouri farm. Her first job was as a human "computor" during World War II.. She joined the programming staff at the University of Pennsylvania's Moore School of Electrical Engineering in 1945.
ENIAC – the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer – was the first large-scale, fully electronic, and general-purpose computer. Its best-known application was computing firing tables for the U.S. Army, although World War II ended before the computer was finished.
"There was a war on and women were doing everything, including being Rosie the riveter. I wanted to get out of Missouri and see some of the world. I wanted adventure, something new. I was 21 years old when I came to Philadelphia against the advice of everyone except one math teacher," she said, in an interview posted on About.com.
"We had no manuals for ENIAC. We learned how to program by studying the logical block diagrams. What a blessing. From the beginning, I knew how computers worked. We gained the respect of the engineers from the beginning because we really knew what we were doing and we could debug better than they could because we had our test programs as well as our knowledge of the computer."
After ENIAC, Bartik followed co-inventors John W. Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert to UNIVAC, where she worked on microcoded logic design and data backup for the UNIVAC 1. She also helped convert ENIAC into a stored-program machine. Later she worked in computer publishing.
In the 1990s and 2000s, Bartik was bestowed high honors for her work. She received the Augusta Ada Lovelace Award from the Association of Women in Computing in 1997; induction into the Women In Technology International Hall Of Fame, also in 1997; Computer History Museum Fellows Award in 2008; and IEEE Computer Society Computer Pioneer Award in 2009.
Bartik also gave an oral history (PDF) to the Computer History Museum in 2008, part of which is on YouTube.
The other original ENIAC programmers were Betty Snyder Holberton, Kathleen McNulty Mauchly, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum and Frances Bilas Spence. The team is being memorialized in an in-progress documentary, Refrigerator Ladies: The Untold Story of the ENIAC Programmers, at ENIACprogrammers.org, produced by Kathy Kleiman.
"Jean Bartik was one of the most creative and interesting people I ever met. She was warm and humorous, straight-forward and crystal clear. She would regale us with stories of the ENIAC and computer history, still so real for her, and then listen intently as someone explained our modern systems to her," Kleiman said today.
"I have two favorite memories of Jean: one is my time with her listening to stories and learning about computer pioneers. The other is from 2008 watching Jean in the Google cafeteria, surrounded by young women from Google, with their heads together swapping stories and laughing. Systems change; challenges in computing, and triumphs, seem to be universal."
Old programmers never die, they just decompile
Last week I wrote in memory of Jean Bartik, the last of the original six ENIAC programmers. Unfortunately there have been several important figures in computer history who left us recently. Some are extremely famous, such as DEC founder Ken Olsen and networking pioneer Paul Baran; both rightfully received significant media attention for their accomplishments. But some others aren't well known, despite their importance, so here are a few thoughts in their honor too.
Stan Veit (July 29, 2010) ran Computer Mart of New York, which was the first computer store in New York City. Later he was an editor at Popular Electronics and then led Computer Shopper –- who among us didn't spend our influential years reading those magazines? And finally, he wrote Stan Veit's History of the Personal Computer, which Atlanta-area collector David Greelish published in podcast form. Around metropolitan New York, Stan wasn't just a store owner and journalist, he was a legend.
Tom Kirk (Oct. 18, 2010) was largely unknown outside of central New Jersey. Among his career stops was a stint at Xitan / Technical Design Labs which was a manufacturer in the S-100 category. Its software evolved in Epson's. Tom was also a passionate packrat whose personal collection included an IBM 1130 mainframe, DEC PDP-8/E, several keypunches and teletypes, dozens of AT&T 3B2 UNIX boxes, and thousands of books and magazines. Tom is gone, however, his collection and thus his memory lives on in the MARCH (Mid-Atlantic Retro Computing Hobbyists) computer museum in Wall, New Jersey. (Disclosure: I am personally involved in that organization.)
Watts Humphrey (Oct. 28, 2010) did his best work at Sylvania, IBM, and the Software Engineering Institute. In the 1950s and 1960s, at Sylvania, he worked on FIELDATA which was a military predecessor to ASCII. His role at IBM was in the business side of software. Then, at SEI, he became a leader in the quality assurance realm. In 2005 he won the National Medal of Technology.
Neil Otto (Jan. 26, 2011) is the least famous of this group. Neil operated a company here in New Jersey called Otto Electronics and taught engineering at the prestigious College of New Jersey. He was a popular source of used computer parts for local hobbyists and a strong supporter of the Trenton Computer Festival –- the longest-running computer show anywhere (and where you can meet or heckle me this weekend.)
Dimitry Grabbe (March 2, 2011) had a career which arguably impacted the most people of this group. He worked on approximately 500 patents related to the electronic and industrial packaging of circuits, eventually becoming director of R&D at AMP and an IEEE Life Fellow. As with Tom Kirk, Dimitry's personal technology artifacts are housed at the New Jersey computer museum. His IEEE oral history is here.
So the next time you meet at old hand at technology development, be sure to appreciate and learn from him or her. Otherwise you may never know what contributions they made to the field, whether famous or not, and how their work could impact your own.