The Mac comes of age

The Mac comes of age

Twenty-one years ago today, the Apple Mac was launched.

A collective of German Mac fans has digitised the only surviving video tape of the launch. The recording features all the often-told moments of the launch – from Steve Jobs’s bow tie (how diferent from the jeans and black turtlenext of today) to the moment he pulls the Mac from the bag, and the huge grin he casts at the assembled early Church of Mac at the now-demolished Flint Center in Cupertino. Until today the video has never been seen online. But now it’s available on several mirror Web sites (list here). It shows, among other things, the demonstration of the computer’s ability to convert text-to-speech — when Macintosh said “hello” to the assembled multitude.

In my book I wrote about my own first encounter with the Mac. I’ve just dug out what I wrote. Here it is:

“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.

All this was Bill Atkinson’s doing. In the circumstances, to call him a programmer is like calling Christian Dior a dressmaker. Atkinson is in fact a genius, or at the very least an artist whose medium just happens to be software.”

Note for non-Macintosh folks: Bill Atkinson was the programmer who wrote MacPaint. He later wrote HyperCard. Not many people change the world twice in one lifetime.