Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Unearthed arcana, milestones, and anniversaries.

What makes Rock Band rock?

November 23rd, 2015 10:13 AM
Filed under History, People;
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Last month I quit my job at MIT, taking with me the Apple IIGS that had been in my office for nearly three years. I'm not yet settled enough at my new place of employment to inquire if it'd be appropriate to install a 30-year-old machine in my office — but it's only a matter of time.

Fortunately, my computer wasn't that employer's only connection to the Apple II. The MIT alumni association's podcast, Slice of MIT, recently aired an episode with Eran Egozy '95, who co-founded the video game developer Harmonix. In "What Makes Rock Band Rock?", Egozy gives credit to the Apple II for getting him his start: "When Eran was 15, his parents bought him an Apple II computer. He and a friend got together and decided to find a way to make the computer play back Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony," says the show's host. "This wasn't just one instrument of the symphony: the pair found the whole symphony score, complete with all of the different parts for the string instruments, the brass, and the woodwinds — and every day after school, they would translate the music into computer code. Every ten seconds of the score took 3–4 hours to code."

Here's the whole episode:

MIT and the Apple II: a winning combination!

(Hat tip to Kate Repantis)

Charlie Kellner of alphaSyntauri

October 5th, 2015 1:37 PM
Filed under Hacks & mods, History, Software showcase;
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Were it not for the Apple II, Apple would've made no other machines; consequently, when telling the story of the Macintosh, historians often include segments of interest to the Apple II user. Such was the case with the 2008 documentary Welcome to Macintosh, which showed enough interest in the Apple II (including an interview with Vince Briel) that it was reviewed in Apple II magazine Juiced.GS.

Now the identically named but unrelated podcast Welcome to Macintosh has another serving of Apple II goodness — one that ties in with one of my all-time favorite movies: TRON. I knew the Apple II had played a role in other films of the era, such as WarGames, but I didn't realize it'd also contributed to the soundtrack of TRON — or that the software with which it did so was played by its developer at Steve Wozniak's wedding.

It's all courtesy Charlie Kellner, inventor of alphaSyntauri, one of the first digital music synthesizers.

Welcome to Macintosh host Mark Bramhill interviewed Kellner about how he created the synthesizer not as a commercial product, but as something he wanted for himself. It nonetheless then caught the interest of Apple, musicians such as Stevie Wonder, the Dolphin Research Center, and more. At a time when personal computers were new and their functions not yet widely understood, Kellner successfully demonstrated the Apple II's utility to a diverse range of professionals in a variety of fields.

Although the interview focuses on this particular application, Kellner likely has many more stories from the dawn of personal computing. His résumé reads like a who's-who of developers and publishers: Apple, Lucasfilm, Epyx, and Isix in the 1980s; in later decades, Viacom, Microsoft, Wizards of the Coast, and Nintendo. But you can find out about his earliest success by downloading the interview in your favorite podcatcher, or streaming it below:

Apple forgets its history

June 1st, 2015 10:06 AM
Filed under History;
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For more than a decade, Apple's website has offered free downloads of legacy software, including a variety of Apple II and Classic Mac OS operating systems and utilities. The URL was always the same:

This page was referenced throughout the years in Juiced.GS, as recently as September 2014. It wasn't a resource that was often called upon, but it was often relied upon as a place where Apple acknowledged its history and provided some meager support for its legacy customers.

All good things must come to a 404: as Ivan Drucker reported this weekend, this directory has simply disappeared from Apple's website. Steve Weyhrich contacted support to ask where it went and was told simply that it's gone. And, thanks to the site's prohibitive robots.txt file, to Google's cache and the Wayback Machine, it's as if the page never existed.

Both Ivan and Dagen Brock pointed out a harsh reality: Apple doesn't care about anyone who hasn't bought anything from them in the last 36 months (the span of AppleCare). Whether this obsolescence is planned or not, Apple's business is in selling you new hardware and software. Support for older equipment is only a means to that end — or, in the case of Apple II software, a dead end.

It's sad to realize that Dan Budiac's Apple IIc registration card and David Greelish's petition for an Apple museum were both for naught.

Dan Budiac's Apple IIc registration card

Fortunately, the omnipresent Jason Scott has succeeded where Apple has failed: his byline is on a 2012 upload to the Internet Archive of Apple's complete older software list. And since we're dealing with decades-old software, this mirror being three years old is of no consequence — nothing's changed in that time.

Although it may not make any business sense to do so, it's a shame Apple doesn't better respect its history, especially when there's little cost to doing so. Thank goodness for the community of Apple II enthusiasts who still remember where we came from.

Codes that changed the world

April 20th, 2015 10:40 AM
Filed under History;
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Growing up with the Apple II, I learned to program in BASIC. Its line numbers, GOTOs and GOSUBs, and spaghetti code were unlike anything I would encounter later in my education. Perhaps for that reason, I never mastered a language like I did BASIC. While I was able to grasp Prolog and FORTRAN, the "pointers" of C++ were so incomprehensible to me that I eventually had to change majors to get away from it.

Had I continued down that programming path, I doubtless would've faced many other challenging concepts as I attempted to master yet more languages, like C Sharp, Perl, PHP, Ruby, and more. By some estimates, there are over 20,000 languages in existence, only a fraction of which I ever could've learned on the Apple II. Some are more practical than others, while others are of more historical significance.

The BBC attempts to scratch the surface of those historical languages in a recent limited-run podcast series, Codes that Changed the World, hosted by Aleks Krotoski.

Codes that Changed the World

The podcast, which debuted this month and ran for all of five episodes, covers four languages: FORTRAN, COBOL, BASIC, and Java, with a fifth episode discussing how so many different languages are able to coexist.

Of course, you can't discuss the rise of BASIC without the role the Apple II played, and vice versa:

BASIC enabled computing as we understand it today. When Apple was a two-man band building this thing called the Apple II, there were no other computers out there like it. So they had to put something on it that would allow individuals to program it themselves. Apple just wouldn't exist without BASIC. And Microsoft! The first thing that Microsoft did as a company was selling BASIC to run on other people's computers. The two biggest names in modern computing, Apple and Microsoft, both wouldn't've happened if it wasn't for BASIC.

BASIC celebrated its 50th birthday last year, earning it a cover story in Juiced.GS:
Juiced.GS Volume 19 Issue 2

While researching that story, author Steve Weyhrich (who also pointed me to this podcast) delved into the resources available at Dartmouth College, where BASIC was invented. As part of its "BASIC at 50" commemoration, Dartmouth produced a free 38-minute documentary, Birth of BASIC:

If you want to learn more about other programming languages, Codes that Changed the World is available in iTunes. While it's unreasonable to expect all 20,000 languages to be covered, I do lament that the podcast's scope was limited to only five episodes, as I rather enjoyed these 15-minute encapsulations of technical topics for a lay audience. If the BBC or Krotoski ever produce more, I'll be first in line to listen!

Kids can't wait

March 30th, 2015 8:44 AM
Filed under History, Steve Jobs;
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Education? I'm a fan. I taught at the high school level for several years and have been a college instructor for twice that. Teaching kids not what to think, but how to think, is the best investment I know to make in our future.

Turns out Steve Jobs was of a similar mindset. In a 1995 interview with Daniel Morrow of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, Jobs related his drive to ensure other kids had the same opportunities he did:

When I was ten or eleven I saw my first computer… I fell in love with it. And I thought, looking at these statistics in 1979, I thought if there was just one computer in every school, some of the kids would find it. It will change their life.

Jobs investigated what it would cost to donate a single Apple II computer to every K-12 school in the United States. The cost was prohibitive for such a fledging company, but made economical and affordable with various tax incentives and deductions. Jobs lobbied for even more flexibility, getting as far as landing the Computer Equipment Contribution Act of 1982 on the floor of the Senate, after sailing it through Congress. Alas, it never made it past that point. In the end, Jobs' outreach was limited to California, where each of over 9,000 schools benefitted from Apple's generosity.

Audrey Watters over at Hack Education has more details and links, including to InfoWorld's and Creative Computing's reports of that era. It's a fascinating look at the marketing and financial strategy by which Apple came to dominate the classroom.

9 myths about the Oregon Trail

March 16th, 2015 10:15 AM
Filed under Game trail, History;

At a recent PAX East 2015 panel on empathy games, I asked: "Since empathy games are often based in reality, do developers of such games hold themselves to a higher standard in terms of being authentic — as opposed to a more fictional game world, which doesn't purport to represent a real-life situation?"

Perhaps it was unfair of me to suggest empathy games are alone in this higher standard, as games have been founded in reality for as long as there have been games. Oregon Trail was based on a 2,200-mile route travelled by 400,000 settlers in 1846–1869. No work of fiction, the game is the product of some serious research and was widely used in classrooms as an early form of edutainment.

But, like many grade-school history lessons, some of the details weren't quite right. Phil Edwards recently did some historical research of his own and determined 9 myths you learned from playing Oregon Trail. The article is a fun and fascinating read, with far more details than these succinct headlines:

  1. Not everyone used oxen. Some people used handcarts.
  2. Traveling at a "grueling" pace was less fun than it sounds
  3. You wouldn't have randomly forded a 40-foot-deep river
  4. You couldn't kill thousands of pounds of buffalo
  5. Dysentery was much, much worse than a punchline
  6. No one got a funny headstone with curse words when they died
  7. Native Americans didn't really want your sweaters
  8. The rafting trip at the end of the game was insane
  9. Starting out as a banker was even better than you realized

References to a rafting trip don't ring a bell for me, so I suspect the article is based on a version of the game that didn't appear on the Apple II — likely the 1990 MS-DOS edition. Still, it's fun to see where fiction diverges from fact.

But what if it went the other way, and instead of a game or book based on reality, we had reality based on a game? It'd probably end up looking like the Oregon Trail movie trailer (Oregon Trailer?), which I originally shared on this blog five (!) years ago:

Fortunately, fan films aren't the only media we have to rely on. Any armchair historian can learn more about this unique expansion of early American settlements in The California and Oregon trail, a 1901 book by Trail veteran Francis Parkman.

Or you can just play the game.

(Hat tip to via VideoGames)