Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

April 3, 2010 at 10:54 pm | Posted in Innovation | 5 Comments
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A middle-aged man and a teenager were talking.  The teenager said “I can’t imagine growing up in your time.  There was no high-definition colour TV, no Internet to find the information you need on any subject and no mobile phone to stay in touch with your friends from anywhere.”  The older man thought about this for a moment and replied “You know what?  You’re right, we didn’t have any of those things.  So, we had to invent them.  Now tell me you arrogant little @$*%, what are you doing for the next generation?”

I was reminded of this apocryphal story, when I read today of the recent death of Dr Henry Edward Roberts.  Now, I’m sure that’s a name that doesn’t mean much to a lot of people, but Ed Roberts’ contribution to computing was enough for him to be known as the “Father of the Personal Computer”.  He was the founder of Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems.  MITS originally sold electronics kits to amateur rocket enthusiasts, but launched the Altair 8800 microcomputer on the front page of “Popular Electronics” in January 1975.  Perhaps its greatest claim to fame was that Bill Gates and Paul Allen wrote Altair-Basic” to allow users to program the computer.  Both Gates and Allen worked for MITS before founding “Micro-soft” as it was originally known.  In a statement issued jointly, Gates and Allen said “We will always have many fond memories of working with Ed in Albuquerque, in the MITS office right on Route 66 – where so many exciting things happened that none of us could have imagined back then.”

The Altair 8800 was based on the Intel 8080 microprocessor (then less than a year old) and was supplied in kit form, had no display and was operated with switches.  It had just 7K of memory and the first load of Altair-Basic was done from punched paper tape.  To most people today, used to having multi-core processors, terabytes of disk storage and gigabytes of RAM in their home PC (and not that much less computing power in the smart phone in their pocket), it probably seems like little more than a toy.  My first home computer, bought in 1982 for £200 (an absolute fortune to me then) was an Acorn Atom.  Like the Altair, this arrived in kit form and had to be assembled.  It boasted 12K of RAM – armed with an article from a computing magazine, a soldering iron and a lot of nerve, I managed to exploit a 2K gap in the memory map, by “piggybacking” one RAM chip on top of another – it used a black and white portable TV as a monitor (through a temperamental RF modulator) and used an audio cassette deck for data and program storage.  Still primitive by today’s standards perhaps, but it allowed me to develop my programming skills and to understand at a very low level how things fit together.

It’s remarkable to remember that the computer industry has moved from mainframes and batch processing to the globally connected and mobile capability we have today all within my working lifetime.  From before the launch of the IBM PC, this capability has grown as visionaries have built upon the work of their predecessors, pioneers like Ed Roberts. 

To quote from Gates and Allen again, “The day our first untested software worked on his Altair was the start of a lot of great things.”  Today, software from the company that sprung from that first success, Microsoft, touches every aspect of life around the World.  So, just as Newton said to Hooke nearly 350 years ago, today’s innovators owe their advances to the fact that they are standing on the shoulders of giants.


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