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Dr. Dobb's Journal @ 30

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January, 2006: Dr. Dobb's Journal @ 30

Michael is DDJ's editor-at-large. He can be contacted at [email protected]

Ahoy Old Friends!

It was Berkeley Free Speech Movement leader Jack Weinberg who first famously advised against trusting anyone over 30. Weinberg was 24 at the time. That was more than 30 years ago, so by his rule, anybody alive then is suspect now. That includes this writer, and arguably, this magazine.

The Weinberg meme spread rapidly, at least among people under 30. (Of course, we didn't know it was a meme back then; we were busy grappling with the medium being the message.) John McCarthy, creator of the programming language LISP, picked up Weinberg's meme, and knowing a thing or two about project scheduling, predicted that the boundary of trust would slip one year per year until in 60 years it would have become "don't trust anyone over 90."

Free speech, inventing new programming languages, the Constant Time to Completion slippage rule: All part of the cultural milieu in which Dr. Dobb's Journal was born.

This month, Dr. Dobb's turns 30. In life's little jokes, time gets all the punchlines. So is it time for the journal to stop trusting itself? Or should it, as McCarthy suggests, just move the goal posts?

These are knotty problems. This article will not tackle any knotty problems. This article will wimp out and take the path of least resistance, the low road of maudlin reminiscence. Over the past three decades, I've been an observer, participant, and chronicler of Dr. Dobb's history. Here, from research and memory, is a flashback to the magazine's early days. Put Frampton on the 8-track. Chill.

The Toggling Was Boggling

By the middle of the 1970s, semiconductor technology had advanced to a state where it was technically feasible and financially practical for motivated electronics hobbyists to build their own computers.

The thought that such a computer might have the brain of a four-function calculator, have zero mass storage, and use dip switches and blinking lights for I/O did little to discourage these hobbyists. They could easily imagine tweaking their home-built computers to get around any initial limitations. Technologically, the pieces were all in place.

  • For the Central Processing Unit, you could use one of those new microprocessor chips like Intel had developed for Busicom's calculator and for CTC's smart terminal.
  • For mass storage, you had disk drives of the flexible and fixed varieties, as well as mag tape and paper tape, and if you couldn't afford any of that, you could surely somehow convert an old cassette recorder into a mass-storage device.
  • For I/O, the easiest thing to imagine was using one of those devices you already used to communicate with mainframes and minicomputers—the teletype machine. And there were keyboards and even CRT terminals, if you could figure out how to interface them to the computer. But until you had those details worked out, you could put up with toggling dip switches and reading flashing lights.

Nor were these hardy pioneers daunted by the lack of any reasonable application for such a computer. Savvy marketers of early microcomputer kits liked to cover their inability to imagine a practical use for the rudimentary computers by saying that they were "limited only by your imagination." This went over surprisingly well: The hobbyists had great faith in their own imaginations.

The key thing was that you could now build a working computer or the parts to build one, then program it, accessorize it, and most importantly, control it—it would be your personal computer. The conjunction of those two words, personal and computer, went through this community like an electric charge. A very few people had actually experienced having their own computer, but anybody who had ever used or programmed a computer could understand the idea and the appeal.

I'd better say right now that the word "hobbyist" as I'm using it is shorthand for all those people—engineers, academics, small business owners—who felt the hunger for their own computer. "Enthusiast" might be a better term. Whatever you call them, they stand in stark opposition to—here's another shorthand term—the computer priesthood. These were the people who stood between the hobbyists and the computer, doling out time slices or feeding punched cards and tearing off green-and-white banded printouts in temperature-controlled rooms.

It's important to keep these two stereotypes in mind, the hobbyist and the priesthood, because the rebellion of the hobbyists against the priesthood was a powerful myth that motivated the participants.

When the pieces were in place for the hobbyists to wrest control from the priesthood and the balance of power tipped, it shocked anyone who wasn't directly involved in computer technology, and many who were. A force powerful enough to reshape the world economy and introduce waves of cultural change was hidden in the frustration of people with relatively little power or visibility. That these anonymous hackers should be responsible for changing our world so profoundly was, to the rest of society, totally unexpected.

That's the mythology, and while some of the rough edges may have worn off the facts over the years, the mythology is erected on basic truth. You can draw the lines of connection from the computer industry of today right back to Steve Wozniak building computers for fun and Homebrew Computer Club members exchanging programming and computer-building tips, and yes, Dr. Dobb's Journal publishing a 4K Basic language implementation in hex to key into your Altair.

Underfunded, But Well Foundered

The story of this magazine's origin goes something like this: Dennis Allison dropped in on Bob Albrecht one day in 1975...

But wait, first you need to know about Dennis. And Bob. And the magazine Bob was reading when Dennis dropped in.

Dramatic verisimilitude demands that Albrecht enter our story stage left, bubbling with humor and enthusiasm. We pick up on him in 1975, having quit Control Data Corporation because of its reluctance to consider the idea of a personal computer, moved west, and set up shop teaching Basic to kids for no money just because he thinks it is worth doing. Or maybe because he gets a kick out of it. This activity leads him to open what is probably the world's first completely free, walk-in, public computer center—People's Computer Center--in a storefront in Menlo Park, California. Nearby could be found the Portola Institute, the Whole Earth Catalog & Truck Store, and Midpeninsula Free University's Free U Store. Do you get the sense of the atmosphere?

People's Computer Center begat People's Computer Company, PCC, which Albrecht has described as "a company in the same sense that Big Brother and the Holding Company was a company." Actually, it was a newsletter from which, by a kind of reified linguistic backformation, sprang a real company, sort of, of the same name. PCC the newsletter's focus was computer games, Basic programming for fun, and computers for people.

Allison had met Albrecht in conjunction with the ACM National Conference in San Francisco; Allison was the ACM chapter head, and Albrecht asked him to wear another hat, as a founding board member of PCC.

Allison was also on the computer science faculty at Stanford University. That's still one of the many hats he wears. A man with an omnivorous curiosity and a gift for networking of the interpersonal kind, Allison shared Albrecht's interest in spreading knowledge of computers to as many people as possible. He saw PCC as a great vehicle for this, promoting the use of computers through books and journals and the storefront and community outreach programs.

On that day in 1975, Dennis (for reasons that will shortly become apparent, I will now be using their first names) had brought Bob a book review for the PCC newsletter. But Bob was more interested in talking about the January issue of Popular Electronics magazine, with a cover story on the MITS Altair computer.

MITS had unleashed on the world a real computer for under $500—assuming that a collection of electronic parts to be assembled and programmed by the consumer is a computer. Dennis and Bob were fine with that assumption, but Bob pointed out that people would buy this thing and be unable to do anything with it. What could they do to help?

It was obvious: Give everyone a really tiny Basic interpreter. So they outlined a tiny Basic in the pages of PCC (Bob named it "Tiny Basic," Dennis wrote the article). Dennis did most of the implementation and soon, two readers (Dick Whipple and John Arnold), supplied a full implementation. Letters were pouring in; a forum was needed for talking about Tiny Basic. Bob and Dennis could tell that they needed more pages than PCC could give to Tiny Basic.

Enter Rick Bakalinsky, the Fifth Beatle, the Pete Best, the Ron Wayne of DDJ. Rick, a paste-up artist, was given the job of putting together a three-issue magazine to publish all the material on Tiny Basic. He was also charged with naming the limited-life magazine. Rick thought these guys were named Don and Bob, so he combined their names with some artistic license and came up with "Dobb." Because he knew nothing about computers, Rick asked around about terminology and decided that "byte" would be a nice name. But it was explained that BYTE was taken, so he riffed off the bite idea and came up with Dr. Dobb's Journal of Tiny Basic Calisthenics and Orthodontia: Running Light Without Overbyte. The first cover featured a composite image of a streaker ("running light") with Kirk Douglas's head grafted on, facing backward. Some of the symbolism escapes this writer, I'm afraid.

Three issues later it was clear that this thing was going to need a few more issues, and Dennis talked Jim Warren, a contact from Free U and ACM, into taking on the editing duties.

The Way We Were

Can it be that it was all so simple then,
Or has time rewritten every line?
—Bergman, Bergman, and Hamlisch

Jim Warren did accept Dennis Allison's offer and served as Dr. Dobb's editor for two years.

During Jim's tenure, the magazine defined itself in ways that have held up for 15 times 2 years. It would publish source code for microcomputers and otherwise serve its readers with reviews, bug reports, fixes for software, critiques of companies, computer assembly reports, and inside dope from processor companies, and it would explore proposed Standards, far-out ideas, and "realizable fantasies."

Jef Raskin soon joined to handle the reviewing chores.

Contributors to the magazine would have a good idea what the readers' needs were because the readers and the writers were the same group of microcomputer hobbyists. In that first year, DDJ published articles such as Tom Pittman's byte-saving programming tricks for the 8080 processor and Roy Rankin and Steve Wozniak's floating-point routines for the 6502. It discussed wresting control of the emerging standard bus structure away from MITS, the company that had created it. It was symptomatic of the hobbyist community that they would rebel against MITS, which was more nearly a part of the hobbyist community than of the computer priesthood. Late in the year, Jim wrote about an operating system that had been developed for microcomputers by a guy named Gary Kildall; it was called "CP/M," and was to become the most important program ever developed for these early microcomputers.

Tom Williams had been serving as assistant editor and slid easily and naturally into the editorial desk when Jim moved on to run the West Coast Computer Faire, which embodied the principle that a computer convention ought to be equal parts flea market and Renaissance Faire. By the end of 1978, Microsoft and Apple were starting to become forces in the hobbyist community, but there were no big companies.

The technology was tracking Moore's Law and microcomputers now had a trifle more memory, so Dr. Dobb's was able to publish source code for more ambitious language implementations, including Lawrence Livermore Labs Basic, John Starkweather's Pilot implementation, and microcomputer implementations of Pascal and Forth. Max Agoston gave us the full source code for an 8080 OS kernel, and the magazine began doing articles on programming techniques and algorithms in addition to more specific implementations and clever hacks. Jef Raskin left to write documentation for Apple, and soon Tom moved on, to be replaced by Suzanne Rodriguez.

Suzanne claims that programming and computers never came up in her job interviews with Bob and Dennis. She was and is a fine writer/editor, so it worked out all right.

As the '70s ended, DDJ increased its emphasis on CP/M systems and on algorithms. Jon Bentley and Dennis Allison and Donald Knuth all wrote extensively on algorithms during that era. Then came a crucial article/piece of software: Ron Cain's Small C Compiler for the 8080s. Up to that point, C was not a language used on microcomputers, although its importance in computing more generally was growing rapidly. Cain's article came just at the right time to give the microcomputer revolution another kick.

Under Marlin Ouverson's editorship, (1981-82: "Two Years Before the Masthead," as he called it in his final editorial), the magazine began to look a little more professional and consistent. Columnist and "Resident Intern" Dave Cortesi came aboard, along with Dave Caulkins, Tony Skjellum, and Ray Duncan, names that will be familiar to many readers. Marlin was responsible for getting the Forth language more attention in the community, and under his stewardship, the magazine began to look more frequently at networking issues. In 1982, the magazine started carrying advertising. Also that year, DDJ was publishing bug reports, evaluations, and code for the new IBM PC. GUI issues were starting to be taken seriously. Ed Ream introduced a portable screen-oriented editor. Jim Hendrix's Small-C compiler, a substantial improvement over Ron Cain's, was one of the first pieces of software distributed by DDJ on disk as well as in its pages.

It would be mere historical accuracy for the next sentence to begin, "When Courtney Love's estranged father took over editorial responsibilities for the magazine," but that just sounds so soap opera-ish. It's factual, though, that Hank Harrison was DDJ's senior editor for a few months in 1983, and that Hank is the father of Kurt Cobain's widow, and that Hank and Courtney are not on the best of terms. Hank's era transitioned into Renny's within a couple of months.

Renny Wiggins oversaw some historic developments during his editorial tenure in 1983-84. Roger Gregory wrote about Xanadu, the visionary software environment that he was working on with Ted Nelson. Ed Mitchell did the seemingly impossible by implementing the massive kitchen-sink DoD language Ada (or a subset thereof) to microcomputers. I don't remember ever seeing Renny stressed.

In 1984, M&T Publishing licensed DDJ from PCC. The magazine was in financial trouble, and what it needed was an injection of cash. Perhaps the decision to accept ads in 1981 had changed the business model, and no one had accepted the need to compete for ad and circulation dollars with the hordes of other computer magazines that had appeared by this time. With circulation around 17K, ads were slow in coming, and the magazine was facing the need to shift editorial coverage to track the IBM PC and compatibles better and to stay on top of new GUI software while not abandoning CP/M. M&T brought in a new editor-in-chief—me.

The money helped. As for the editor, I'm not so sure. I always felt like I was just tracking what was happening.

But what was happening was exciting. The Mac came on the scene, and we tacked it with true hobbyist/revolutionary spirit, going at it with a hacksaw to show readers how to overcome the designed-in RAM limitations in an article called "Fatten Your Mac." Allen Holub's Grep in C symbolized the fact that microcomputers were going to have all the tools that mainframe and minicomputers had.

We published the source code for Grep in C, of course. It's easy for me to reminisce about the people or the particular programs or the companies, but the essential thing all these years is that simple fact: We publish source code. That, in four words, is what we've been doing the past 30 years. And here's why:

"It is this open sharing," Jim Warren wrote in his first editorial, "that particularly delights me...We must all do what we can to encourage it. The sharing of ideas...allows us to stand on one another's shoulders, instead of standing on one another's feet...So continue to share your ideas, and continue to share your excitement."


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