A VisiCalc time capsule

June 10th, 2019 12:56 PM
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When I was in sixth grade, my class created personal time capsules. We took various pop culture artifacts, put then in a shoebox, and then applied newspapers to decoupage the assembled work. There was no coordinated effort to bury the capsules, though — we brought them home and did whatever 11-year-olds do with completed homework, which in my case was shove it under my bed. It's still there, and the decoupage didn't permanently seal the box, as every few years, I open it to paw through what I thought was important thirty years ago.

Or, actually, what was unimportant: I couldn't imagine parting with anything I actually valued and bequeathing it to unknown citizens of generations hence. My capsule instead consisted of newspaper comics, McDonald's Happy Meal toys, and other random gadgets I wouldn't miss. It wasn't the most representative selection of the time.

Architect Frank Gehry did a better job of preserving 20th-century history in a time capsule donated to MIT. Its contents were assembled in 1999, a mere twenty years ago. It was meant to remain sealed for another fifteen years, but its creator locked it with a cryptographic puzzle that would've taken the computers of his era ages to unlock, whereas today's machines made short work of it.

Regardless, he did a much better job than I did in selecting artifacts of value. The contents of the time capsule were already old when he chose them, such as the user manual for VisiCalc, the world's first-ever electronic spreadsheet. VisiCalc was invented by Dan Bricklin, an MIT graduate, so its inclusion in the capsule was of local interest as well.

Unlocking the time capsule.

The capsule's other contents would also be of interest to Apple II users. They included a copy of Microsoft BASIC for the Altair, donated by Bill Gates, who attended the 1999 ceremony in which the capsule was originally sealed. Altair's BASIC was Microsoft's first product, laying the foundation for the company to later create Applesoft BASIC for the Apple II.

In sixth grade, I plenty of Apple II paraphernalia that would've been right at home in a time capsule. It never occurred to me to include any not because I thought it was insignificant, but because it was too important for me to part with. The Apple II was a computer I used daily from 1983 to 1997, and via emulation ever since; I was too selfish to sacrifice some aspect of it for historical preservation.

Fortunately, nowadays we can have our artifacts and preserve them, too. Microsoft BASIC's source code has been released; the VisiCalc manual has been scanned; heck, even VisiCalc itself is available for download from Dan Bricklin's website.

But you can't digitize a Happy Meal toy, so maybe I didn't do so badly, after all.

(Hat tip to Jesus Diaz)

A timeline of monitors and displays

April 10th, 2017 11:18 AM
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There are as many ways to connect an Apple II to a display as there have been display types across the decades. Each machine had its own protocols, standards, and benefits. Although the Apple II was designed for color — hence the six-color Apple logo — most people remember a monochromatic experience, due to the black-and-green monitors to which many early computers were connected. The first laptop Macintosh I ever used had a black-and-white display, which was great for playing Crystal Quest but not much else.

A new interactive infographic, "The Evolution of Computer Screens", attempts to chronicle the different ways computers have visually presented data to us over the eras, inviting us: "Take a trip through time and experience the most noteworthy achievements in computer screens, from little known discoveries way back in 1968, to the heated battles between Apple and PC and beyond."

Naturally, such a timeline would be remiss to overlook the Apple II:

Monitor timeline

There are a couple problems with this artistic rendition, though. First, that looks like a mockup, not an actual screenshot, of VisiCalc — the font just seems odd to me. Second, the accompanying text offers the prompt A>dir, which would never be valid on an Apple II unless it had a PC Transporter running MS-DOS, or a Microsoft Z-80 SoftCard running CP/M — a more representative prompt would've been ProDOS or DOS 3.3's native ]CATALOG. Third, the text doesn't actually say anything about the monitor or the display — there's no explanation justifying the Apple II's inclusion on this timeline.

This timeline is produced by AT&T with no individual bylines attached to it. I don't believe corporate sponsorship of a product is inherently suspicious, but not knowing the pedigree of the creators leaves me wondering what their familiarity with or interest in the topic was.

Fortunately, the timeline includes citations to resources referenced during their research. One such link is to Benj Edwards' 2010 feature for PCWorld, "A Brief History of Computer Displays". As a slideshow, it may lack the pizazz of the above timeline, but Edwards' content is, as always, top-notch. Spanning 1951–2010, the twenty slides cover a range of technologies and applications, including both the Apple-1 and Apple II, with technical explanations for what made each innovation a milestone.

Any acknowledgement of the Apple II in mainstream media is one I appreciate; early Apple's flagship product is otherwise too often overlooked. But clarity of audience, intention, and detail do the Apple II justice and ensure that the reference will be understood and appreciated by those familiar with the topic.

(Thanks to Paul Hagstrom for added details.)

Dan Bricklin & VisiCalc at TEDx

February 20th, 2017 10:58 AM
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When Steve Wozniak gave a TED Talk, it was a disjointed series of anecdotes that gave us a glimpse into the early days of Apple. It was fun, but it wasn't a story.

Other veterans of that era have a more natural flair storytelling. Enter Dan Bricklin, who in November 2016 gave a TED Talk on the origins of his industry-redefining application, VisiCalc.

It's a familiar story, and one I mostly already knew, having learned it when I taught my high-school students how to use VisiCalc (as detailed in Juiced.GS Volume 10, Issue 1), though a few details I got wrong: I thought the plaque commemorating VisiCalc's conception was at Bricklin's undergrad of MIT, not his graduate school of Harvard.

But what really underscores this talk is just how revolutionary VisiCalc was. While I knew it was the first electronic spreadsheet, I assumed more of it was derived from analog counterparts: the grid-based patterns, the naming of cells, and the syntax of formulae are all so intuitive, I didn't realize that it all had to be created from scratch.

My thanks to my Massachusetts neighbors Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston for making Apple the company it was. For more of the story, this time from Frankston, watch Kevin Savetz's interview from August 2016.

(Hat tip to Dagen Brock)

VisiCalc review

June 25th, 2012 8:30 PM
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I have a soft spot in my heart for VisiCalc, though perhaps more as an idea than a piece of software. I don't advocate using the world's first-ever electronic spreadsheet in modern times, except perhaps as a learning tool or torture device. But with this the software that cemented the Apple II's place in business having been invented practically in my own backyard (Massachusetts) by Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston, I can't help but have a sense of pride and nostalgia for the little productivity tool.

YouTube artist Brian Picchi is apparently also a fan, as he's recently deviated from his usual computer game reviews to spend five minutes with VisiCalc:

Half historical narrative and half review, Picchi's video is an effective summary of the key points of VisiCalc's significance and function. I didn't remember VisiCalc's formulae for equations, so it was interesting to see that they aren't much different from the syntax used in AppleWorks or Excel.

I could've interviewed Brian for more details about his video, but since he often reads this blog, I'll ask him to leave a comment: Where did you get your v1.37 VisiCalc, Brian?

For more non-gaming critiques from Picchi, check out his top ten television shows cancelled after one season.

Apple's 50 greatest moments

July 28th, 2011 11:14 AM
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In the latest episode of Open Apple, I pointed listeners to an article outlining Apple's ten worst products ever. Such lists aren't original — Computerworld blogger Jonny Evans had his own take last year — but it can be entertaining to see what other people interpret to be Apple's successes and failures.

Back in January, a pair of sites produced more upbeat lists of Apple successes: Computerworld and Complex. The latter's list of the fifty greatest moments in Apple history is comprehensive — how many of us can name any fifty moments in one company's history? To list so many points, Complex couldn't exclude our favorite computer. Many items in Complex's gallery, which is not in chronological order, revolve around our favorite computer and its creator:

Technically, the Apple-1 was not a product of Apple Computer Inc., though it certainly laid the groundwork for the company's eventual founding and success. The machine that launched the corporation was the Apple II, the release of which is noticeably absent from the list. And some of the moments aren't exactly what I'd call the "greatest" — such as Microsoft invests 150 million into Apple, or Pirates of Silicon Valley hits theaters.

What would you consider key moments in the life of Apple Inc.?

Personal data lineage

May 16th, 2011 11:19 AM
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The many hours of driving that composed my weekend were filled with podcasts. Among them were This Week in Tech's interviews with first Bob Frankston and then Dan Bricklin, creators of VisiCalc. The two pioneers must've been happy to finally talk about something other than their spreadsheet, as there was nary a mention of the Apple II to be found.

But around time index 34:03, Bricklin said something to which I can relate:

Every time I get a new hard disk with a new machine, I take everything I used to have from that old, huge 300 gigabyte, and put it the corner of the new drive, and then take that and put it in the corner of a new drive. I've been doing that for years. You always make copies.

This passage describes my practice perfectly. Although I occasionally clean my computer of any unused applications and extensions, the data is persistent, migrating with me from one machine to the next. As a result, I can at a moment's notice access any email I've sent in the last 14 years, or any school paper I've written in the last 23. All this data takes up less than one gigabyte. By 8-bit standards, that's staggering; by today's, having the output of an entire era fit on 0.2% of my current computer's capacity is humbling.

Other Apple II users are likely also inclined to be digital packrats — but what shape does that take? Have you converted your data to disk images? Do you keep your Apple II up and running, able to access the data in its original environment? Or are your hard drives long disconnected, waiting to be archived before it's too late?