25 years on

It’s 25 years ago since the Apple Macintosh was officially launched by Steve Jobs, two days after the screening of Ridley Scott’s famous commercial. ReadWriteWeb has a nice photo gallery of every model. I’ve owned most of them — and still have a couple of the original Macs, plus the first iMac (in tangerine!) and a 1991 Powerbook 100. Sadly, I gave away the Apple ][ that I had in 1978. Otherwise I’d have the makings of a small museum.

I vividly remember the first time I used a Macintosh — and wrote about it in my book on the history of the Internet. The relevant passage comes in the chapter on the deep origins of the Web when I was writing about the work of Bill Atkinson (who invented HyperCard).

In an age of bitmapped screens and Graphical User Interfaces, we have become blasé about drawing and painting packages. But many of us will never forget our first encounter with Atkinson’s baby. In my own case, it happened at a workshop for academics known to be interested in personal computing which was organised by Apple UK at the University Arms hotel in Cambridge.

The venue was a stuffy conference suite ringed with tables covered in green baize. On each table stood an astonishing little machine with a nine-inch screen and a detached keyboard. Compared with the clunky, three-box design which then represented the industry’s idea of what a personal computer should look like, these elegant little machines seemed, well, just gorgeous. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on one.

After an initial spiel by the Apple crowd, we were let loose on the machines. They had been set up, for some unfathomable reason, displaying a picture of a fish. It was, in fact, a MacPaint file. I remember staring at the image, marvelling at the way the scales and fins seemed as clear as if they had been etched on the screen. After a time I picked up courage, clicked on the ‘lassoo’ tool and selected a fin with it. The lassoo suddenly began to shimmer. I held down the mouse button and moved the rodent gently. The fin began to move across the screen!

Then I pulled down the Edit menu, and selected Cut. The fin disappeared. Finally I closed the file, confirmed the decision in the dialog box, and reloaded the fish from disk. As the image reappeared I experienced what James Joyce would call an epiphany: I remember thinking, this is the way it has to be. I felt what Douglas Adams later described as “that kind of roaring, tingling, floating sensation” which characterised his first experience of MacPaint. In the blink of an eye — the time it took to retrieve the fish from disk — all the DECwriter teletypes and dumb terminals and character-based displays which had been essential parts of my computing experience were consigned to the scrapyard. I had suddenly seen the point — and the potential — of computer graphics.

Here’s the video of Jobs’s keynote.

Isn’t YouTube wonderful.