The passing of Steve Jobs has us thinking about the early days of personal computing, but this focus on the success of Apple could distort our understanding of the process of developments that has led to the connectivity that everyone who is reading this takes as just part of life. The New York Times series on the history of the personal computer had this to say in an article on August 19, 2001 "How the Computer Became Personal":
In the pantheon of personal computing, the LINC, in a sense, came first—more than a decade before Ed Roberts made PC's affordable for ordinary people. Work started on the Linc, the brainchild of the M.I.T. physicist Wesley A. Clark, in May 1961, and the machine was used for the first time at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, MD, the next year to analyze a cat's neural responses.LINC, and thus Clark, is seen as competing with others for the title of first personal computer in this description of his 1981 award by the IEEE Computer Society.
Each Linc had a tiny screen and keyboard and comprised four metal modules, which together were about as big as two television sets, set side by side and tilted back slightly. The machine, a 12-bit computer, included a one-half megahertz processor. Lincs sold for about $43,000—a bargain at the time—and were ultimately made commercially by Digital Equipment, the first minicomputer company. Fifty Lincs of the original design were built.
Wesley A. Clark ( not to be confused with General Wesley K Clark) and his wife happened to live just across the hall from us on the West Side of Manhattan for ten years. Not only did I not know of his importance in this field, but neither did anyone else in the building. He was this quirky guy, who always barked at our door when he came home to get a conversation going with our little Westie. His relationship with him may have been deeper than he had with me.
His story is too complex, so the best I can do is provide a few verbal snapshots. In the 1960s when he was doing his work that earned him the title in the Times article, he lived in the world of technology development, government grants, and academic politics, all the while creating his inventions that would have immediate use in medical research and national defense along with transforming the world in ways he could have only imagined. I don't think he ever thought about the potential wealth that could be realized, as few did at that time. No one had ever gotten rich on these small computers
Unlike those who have made vast fortune in the world of computer-internet such as Gates, Jobs and others, who jumped into it without the any advanced eduction, Clark earned degrees from UC Berkeley and MIT. He was located in academic settings, but brought his own funding from two main sources, NIH, National Institute of Health, and DARPA, Defense Advanced Research Project Agency. (I will include some interview transcripts that can be found-with a bit of digging at this valuable web site,
Here are some observations on the funding process
NIH funding v. DARPAThis was an open source culture. One man started to write a book about Clark's involvement with LINC, but he abandoned it, and gave all the interview material eventually to this museum that sponsors the website linked above.
O'NEILL: Well, I am interested from someone who is actually involved in getting money from both of these organizations - how you viewed them.
CLARK: Well, you must remember, that was in the 1960s. It was kind of a heyday of government funding. NIH and DARPAhad budgets that were growing. I almost felt as though I was called up from time to time to see if I wouldn't be willing to take another quarter of million dollars off their hands. You see, it wasn't quite the same sort of thing.
The DARPA work was on contract, the contract mechanism and the NIH funding was through the grant mechanism, and those are quite different kinds of things. The NIH has considerably more paperwork associated with the grant mechanism than it does from its own contract mechanism, which it also has or did have, but we did not use. And ARPA operated only on the contract mechanism. On the other hand, in the ARPA system once you were in you were a member of a club, a stable of supportees by the IPT, with the early meetings in exotic places (preferably, but not always), and a pretty good sense of community with other people who were receiving support from that office. And of course, IPT also had a sense of mission that the NIH people generally did not manifest, although they may have had.
Here's a part of the interview that describes one of Clark's greatest contribution, his seeing that the then current model of multi million dollar computers that were shared by multiple users could never provide the full potential for visual graphics and interactivity that he saw as so valuable. This was a conceptual insight that, while perhaps shared by other, he was in a position based on his successful work in the field to advance. Here's a snippet of the relevant interview on this subject:
O'NEILL: In the early 1960s there started to be a lot of talk about time-sharing. What were your views on timesharing? Do you recall?--------
CLARK: Yes. I'm one of the oldest continuous floating (?) objectors in the business. I still think it's a bad idea. (Diarist's note- Clark was making an illusion to a song from Guys and Dolls, that the transcriber wasn't familiar with , thus the question mark)
Time-sharing, I assume, in your question means capital T, capital S - Time-Sharing, as defined by Project Mac (nothing to do with the Apple Mac, of course
The term "time-sharing" came out of the early work with WHIRLWIND and the SAGE system where it meant something far less grand. The SAGE system was built around a pair of computers - one of them serving pretty much as a backup. The SAGE system per node... I mean a network of computer nodes around the country built
around a pair of computers - one primarily a backup, and yet accessed by hundreds of operators through display consoles in dark rooms looking at radar pictures and computer re-representations of the important parts of radar pictures and tracks of airplanes and the military hardware at hand to defend, and all sorts of other things that went into the air defense problem.
This intellectual insight of Clark, was when the technology based on massive mainframes with time sharing not only the norm, but the expectation of this being continued. This describes his planting the seed of the idea, that was not at first received with applause.
O'NEILL: While this committee was coming up with the report, did you have discussions with the people on the committee about these issues? I mean, was it active...?-----------
CLARK: You mean, were the committee meetings active? Well, yes and no. As I recall the sort of case study proposals of how well things would work if we only had this kind of stuff, and so forth. I tried to point out that it was going to be very hard to do real-time work, or even non-real-time, but display work, for displays. You see, the image
in mind was that of a typewriter, or teletype machine actually, as the principle means of interacting with this timesharing machine. And that's very limited. But there was other work going on at the time with these displays starting with WHIRLWIND and through MTC and TX-0 and TX-2, all of them display-based machines - screen display, CRT.And that was going to be nearly impossible to do, even on a very small scale, on a few displays, on a time-sharing basis with the technology we had at the time. And I thought that would be a loss because I knew very well that that is your principle means of interacting with a computer if you start to do any kind of interactive work. But the committee was not interested in hearing stuff like that.O'NEILL: Did they respond at all to your objections?
CLARK: Not so much. I think they were simply swept aside or tucked in the, "Yes, that's an interesting consideration," department.
Here is Clark's eureka moment where he conceived of the design that would become the Internet:
CLARK: Oh, yes, I mostly heard all of these people talking about the various problems, and maybe for the first time and not with that much zeal, and was quiet for most of the meeting, if not all of the meeting. But toward the end, just before we broke up, I do remember suddenly realizing what the meta-problem was. They hadn't quite realized what they had, all of the proponents of the network. And so, I must have lit up in some way that caught Larry's attention.-----------
No, I passed him a note; that's what I did, I passed him a note saying that I thought I saw how to solve the problem. So they collared me once we left the meeting and wanted to hear about it. I just suddenly realized the fairly obvious thing that they had an n-squared (n2) interaction problem within computer nodes, and that that was the wrong way to go about it. It would be hard to fund and control, and everything else.
And so, the idea was to simply define the network to be something self-contained without those n nodes... without those n ARPA-supported big computers,
they had a number of PDP-10s, as I remember. I think that was PDP-10s time, I am not sure. But, in any case, leave them out; put them outside the network. They weren't part of the network, the network was everything from there in,
and that should be around a single, common message-handling instrument of some kind, so that the design of that instrument and all of the lines were under central control - ARPA central control. They could fund it, get projects started to design the parts, define its finest characteristics and so forth. You had from n to only one interactions, translations, or protocol translations, or whatever to get on the network, and one more to get off, instead of nsquared. Because they were all talking different requirements, and timings, and concerns and so forth.
Here's why I wrote this essay:
Some of the statements that Clark made that are quoted above are unverified, and could be considered self serving and distorted, except for one thing. He never sought any acclaim or reward for what he had contributed. Once again, I don't claim to have had a friendship with him, much to my loss; but he never showed a hint of arrogance. I even had a few discussions with him about computer technology, assuming we were sort of at the same level. He never disabused me of this conceit, as others may have.
The earliest development of the technologies that paved the way for the technological advances that we now take for granted were done in the open source era. Until recently computer code could not be patented, only copyrighted. This is a major difference, as the ideas were in the public domain, but only the exact wording was owned by the writer. The restrictions of patented code (details here), would make advances such as Clark's much more difficult.
His work was not isolated incidents of his mind, but the long slog of insight enhanced by coordinated effort of a group of talented people. This kind of achievement, probably more representative of most advances, does not lend itself to dramatic narrative, but just may be the way our complex world continues to improve.
I believe from my limited knowledge that Wesley A. Clark has lived a full life,-and continues to do so- and never felt any remorse that his insights have created the road for hundreds of people to become billionaires, while he is remains somewhere in the middle class. Most importantly, his life and work gives the lie to the conservative myth that creative invention would not happen without the incentive of amassing vast fortunes.
This has become a self fulfilling prophecy that obviates the ever greater personal satisfaction that comes with creating artifacts that benefit our world. It cheapens and debases us all, distorting our personal values while doing grave damage to our system of economic rewards.
I believe Wesley would share this view.
I sent this essay to Wesley indirectly, and waited for his response, his confirmation that I told his story fairly, and also that we were still O.K. with each other. The days, and then the weeks went by with no response, and I started to feel bad, had I misstated who he was, what he felt during that time of great creativity, his good humor in looking back at those times and the many who became obscenely rich based on his innovations?
And then finally, this response- annotated to clarify his unique style:
What the hell ho,* Al:
Of course I remember Chumley, and with a fond little smile too. Many thanks for bringing this delightful beast back to mind, and for sending us such an astonishing surprise, your "My neighbor" blog!
But - hey! - Al ... all them glowin' words in thar? Even tho ah glows along with 'em, it's still jes me, Wesley --- still that quirky guy who lived across the hall.
And thanks, too, for the update on affaires Rodbell.
So, fare you the hell well, good sir,
* the long form of "hello"
I AM WESLEY A. CLARK AND I APPROVE OF THIS EUGRAM