Horowitz Interviews Andreessen: "The true story...origin of Netscape"

Imagine, if you will, a couple of guys in their 70’s, sitting in tiny house in a tiny rural Iowa hamlet watching this who were substantial forces in the PLATO network, one of which was the son of a principle engineer in the WW II radar laboratory that went on to house the first PLATO system (CERL), and who, himself, as a high school student, debugged the first prototyped pixel for what would be come plasma display technologies. I wasn’t the latter since I was from upper-Midwest farming stock – like Andreessen.

No mention of PLATO by Andreessen despite its historic location less than a block from where the NCSA building and creating the first world-wide social network with full graphics capability (including BTW, vector graphics which Mosaic didn’t have).

OK, there were some howlers but overall it was reasonably interesting to listen to the events involving our old stomping ground. We did get quite a kick out of Andreessen’s apparent ignorance of some important history. Even so it was rather puzzling. He can’t be that dumb. And he isn’t, which we realized at the end:

Andreessen went out of his way to make Horowitz give him just one more minute to insert a punch line as the point of the whole historic narrative.

That’s when we realized why he didn’t talk about PLATO.

The Spyglass browser was primarily the property of a PLATO guy, Brand Fortner. It’s likely that Andreessen’s impression of the PLATO culture came from that rather punishing episode. So, ok, that made him a bit more sympathetic to the old guys having a few laughs at his expense.

In all I came away with a more sympathetic view of Andreessen. I experienced some of what my colleague recalls as the “prison atmosphere” of the University of Illinois at Urbana. So we both empathized.

But, ok, even though Brand did a take-off (Airfight) of a take-off (Airace by Silas Warner) of the first 3D wide area first person shooter game, (Spasim) written by yours truly, let’s move on and forget about PLATO.

What next?

Well, when Andreessen started talking about the early 90s attempts by big media companies to centralize the positive network externalities of the early network, he seemed to believe that this was the first time this was attempted. This omission is a bit less excusable except maybe as his is a somewhat myopic view. This essay of mine from 1982 from within the joint venture between AT&T and the newspaper chain Knight-Ridder demonstrates:

Beyond that, it is pretty obvious that Andreessen should be at the forefront of advocating the kind of reforms I advocated in that essay which would replace Section 230’s immunity granted to the social network monopolies with forcing them into common carrier status where they can have no influence over the content being distributed over their networks – either that, or forcing them into legal liability for that content if they decide to “edit” it or, in the words of Elon Musk, limit the “reach” of those deemed to be unworthy of reach. For example, a web site has “reach” limited only by those who choose to access it. Well, that is unless one counts Google’s page rank algorithm as a quasi social network monopoly (which is what it actually is).

What about such monopolies as Google? How can one deal with them?

It took me another 10 years – and fighting the de facto big 3 launch service providers protected by government favoritism, not to mention NASA:

– to figure out that the real problem with access to space lay within the regulatory capture by capital markets of the tax code as well as within the standard and even more malign public sector rent seeking represented by NASA and government contractors, the solution for which I proposed in 1992. If enacted at that time, it might have averted the need for the more radical remedy of Sortocracy. However, in the meantime, Andreessen married into land value harvesting of the positive network externalities of Silicon Valley. As a result his “Tech Manifesto” demonstrates, he’s no longer in touch with reality.

There but for the grace of God goes this upper-Midwest farmer’s son.



My personal favorite of the Netscape story was Jim Clark, who was if memory serves right, its first CEO, and became a billionaire once AOL acquired the company before the dotcom bubble burst in 1999. Originally, he is from the Texas Panhandle, which is the part of Texas about which jokes like “New Mexico blows, but Texas sucks” have been invented.

Clark was one of the original Silicon Graphics cofounders and has a computer graphics PhD from University of Utah in the early seventies. Few people realize that Utah was at the time the birth place of modern computer graphics and one of the original nodes on the Arpanet, the precursor of the Internet. For an earlier more inclusive perspective of the origins of Netscape, see this article

As an aside, Ben Horowitz started at SGI in 1990, and then moved to Netscape where he initially worked as a product manager alongside Andreessen and Clark. So it seems like there would be another side of the story as well with his recollection, at least picking up from 1995.

Separately, what type of sword is on the shelf behind Andreessen? Not a gladius, does not look like a machete…


Brendan Eich , creator of Brave and Firefox browsers, also worked at Silicon Graphics and Netscape in the 90s.

The dot com bubble burst in April 2000. That was a painful month financially for many people.


Was the failure of the World Online IPO the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back? What is the conventional wisdom on “the one thing” that burst the dotcom bubble?


It was not one company or event.

It was a chain reaction of panic

Prior to the dot bomb :bomb: explosion :boom: I was worried that one day Wall Street is going to realize this is a house of cards waiting to collapse

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Get a load of this (with apologies to Brand Fortner who I gave short shrift to over Airfight since Kevin Gorey was merely one of the most active participants and – interestingly – ended up at SGI with Jim Clark et al.):

Spasim (1974) The First First-Person-Shooter 3D Multiplayer Networked Game

By Jim Bowery
Version 20010402
Copyright 2001
The author grants the right to copy, without modification.

The Challenge

I’m offering $500 to anyone who can document an example of a multi-player 3D virtual reality game prior to “Spasim”. Spasim was written for the Champaign Urbana University of Illinois PLATO network which had hundreds of real-time graphics terminals across the US and some in foreign countries. If memory serves me correctly, the first release of Spasim was in March of 1974.

I’m also offering $200 for any examples of a mathematical model of the global limits to growth (population vs resource availability) that includes space resources; if the model was published prior to the second version of Spasim. The second version of Spasim, released during July of 1974, had a global model that included population, resource utilization and allowance for resources from space.


What was the genesis of 3D virtual reality gaming?

Here’s a possibility:

Starting early in 1974, there is an intellectual genealogy descending from a 3D graphics game called “Spasim” (space simulation) to a bunch of other games on the PLATO network. These included Silas Warner’s “airace” which spawned “airfight” (created by Kevin Gorey and taken to success by Brand Fortner of Spyglass/Mosaic web browser fame) which spawned the US Army’s Panzer tank simulator which spawned Panther by John Edo Haefeli at NW University. At one point, in the mid-1970s, there was even an attempt to create a gaming arcade using PLATO and its multi-user games.

Airfight and Panther spawned Sublogic’s Flightsimulator and Atari’s Battlezone arcade game respectively. Atari, Inc. had an account on the PLATO system, which was a regular player in PLATO’s many multi-user games. Atari produced a number of games based on PLATO games, such as Battlezone. Sublogic was, like PLATO-central, located in Champaign Urbana.

Was Spasim the first 3D game?

Well, almost certainly, it was the first multi-user 3D game.

The Game

Spasim was a 32-player 3D networked game involving 4 planetary systems with up to 8 players per planetary system, flying around a space in which the players appeared to each other as wire-frame space ships and updated their positions about every second.

At its initial release in March of 1974, the game was a simple team-based phasers-and-photon-torpedos Star Trek-type game, mixed with multi-player first-person-shooter dynamics. You had to direct your movement in polar coordinates, but calculate your positions in Cartesian coordinates. By this conceit, I was able to position Spasim as an educational game so that it would be supported on the PLATO network, which was for computer-based education.

The second version, released in July of 1974, included more strategy, including space stations and active resource management. The object of the second version of the game was to try to avoid going to war with other players and perhaps even cooperate to get to a far off planet where you could obtain enormous amounts of extraterrestrial resources. If you went to war, or you just flew around admiring the constellations, you could suffer the dread “PLANETARY PROLETARIATE REVOLT” during which you would watch, helplessly, as your planet’s population and resource-base met with disaster.

The History

I began work on “spasim” (I naively intended for it to be pronounced “space sim” but players of the game quickly christened it “spasm”) while helping University of Iowa art professor Leif Brush establish that institution’s first computer art class in January of 1974. Artists found the technical details of submitting FORTRAN stacks of cards punched on 026 machines to the Lindquist Center for Measurement’s IBM 360/65, with its 24-hour turnaround time Calcomp plotters, to be more than a minor impediment to creativity.

Fortunately, professor Brush introduced us to an amazing phenomenon: A PLATO graphics terminal in the computer-based education lab on the second story of the Lindquist Center. By establishing an individual studies course with Dr. Don McClain, I was able to assist Dr. McClain’s now late colleague, Dr. Bobby Brown, professor of computer based education, who generously tolerated my obsessive, day and night, presence in front of this very much-in-demand resource within his lab.

The PLATO system had hundreds of plasma panel terminals (512*512 graphics displays) around the US with 1200bps connections into a CDC Cyber 6400 mainframe at the Computer Based Education Research Laboratory (CERL) in Urbana, Illinois: fictional birthplace of HAL in Arthur C. Clarke’s “2001: A Space Odessy”. CERL was a block from what would become the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). NCSA was where, more than 15 years later, the Mosaic web browser (basis of both the Netscape and Internet Explorer web browsers) would be written, as well as the Apache web server, the most widely used web server on the Internet. Well, here we are at the dawn of the 21st century with no HAL. AI has failed our expectations but the Internet is ample compensation, so it looks like Clarke was at least a little prophetic in picking Urbana.

The experience of PLATO was radically different from almost any other computing environment of the time. Lots of people had ideas of course, but no one had actually turned those ideas into a highly interactive graphical community. Instead of punch cards, teletypes or even video screens with virtual card decks, PLATO had a graphical program editor with single key-press execution, dynamic debugger and an adaptive automated help request system that fed into an online support staff in real time. The coupling with the real-time availability of people online to help you get going meant it was really easy to get up to speed on PLATO – indeed it was easier in many ways than getting up to speed on Internet facilities of comparable complexity today. The educational purpose of the PLATO system was successfully leveraged in bringing lots of new authors up to speed fast.

While I was learning to program PLATO, a group of guys at the birthplace of the computerIowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts in Ames, Iowa – helped me remotely via the PLATO network and showed me some of their work. John Daleske and Charles Miller were the most helpful. John Daleske had written the first version of a game called “Empire” in April of 1973, when he was joined by Silas Warner, the prolific Jolly Giant of PLATO game authors, from Indiana. Empire, which now exists as an Internet game under the name of Netrek, was a 2D second-person shooter graphical game based loosely on the Star Trek series, including 4 planetary systems and 4 teams where your goal was to conquer all the planetary systems. Although there were many two-player graphical games on PLATO at the time, and Empire wasn’t entirely functional, I was inspired by the idea of a multi-player graphical game of such scope. (Another early version of Empire was written by and some of the other guys at Ames who would go on to create the Moria adventure game along with Chuck Miller.)

Dream check #1: John Daleske had grown up about 10 miles from me in the tiny town of Carlisle, of McCaughy Septuplets fame. OK, that’s not too freaky, but dig this: A few years after we met on-line, John and I finally met face to face at CERL. There, standing in the stairwell, a block from where the web browser you are probably using was first developed, John told me that he had been inspired to write Empire in an unusual experience, and that he had experienced visitation. In my admittedly fallable perception of that conversation, I had the impression that John had been inspired to write Empire by being visited by a space man – a representative of an organization that claimed to have bases on the far side of the moon and IIRC was associated in some way with the Air Force. John has been kind enough to provide his recollection of that conversation:

Now, to clarify the inception of Empire. It was not an alien visitation. I was sitting in a hallway and an inspiration event occured. This is no different than the eureka inspiration events any other creative artist, scientist, writer, etc. would have. The event, lasting a few minutes, was special in that I often had to work somewhat harder at being creative. The design for Empire just popped in, if you will. I had played all the (few) games on PLATO at that time, April 1973. They were Big-Board, challenge games. I had played simulation and tactics board games and the multi-player design for Empire came to me. I was taking an Education class at the time which is what had afforded me access to the two PLATO terminals on campus. We each had some project to do for the class and I had been working on a different one. When the PLATO terminals were installed, I was first on campus. I explored every nook of the system, all the lessons I could find, and the games. Five days later is when the design for Empire came to me. I scrapped my other project and got approval to do something on PLATO instead. I did not know how to obtain lessons and had just run across Silas, so he worked it out to have a lesson started. I did the entire first version myself, up to the point where the game was playable before Silas got involved. So, in one sense, I created the first version entirely myself, but I did have support from Silas. He did review the game for playability and gave comments and suggestions, but I did all the coding.

…However, in early 1975 I did have an odd occurrance (truly odd or somewhat unique) that I had difficulty explaining. I did tell you about the event. I have spent a lot of time trying to understand the aspects of it. No direct physical visitation. It was some kind of psychic event, either with other individuals communicating to me or my sub-conscious/Higher Self. (This is difficult to explain in a short writing of an email. I need to write the whole thing out in detail for people to grasp it.) At the time, I came to feel it was from outside myself, some form of psychic communication from others of some form. I felt initially that it was a number of people trying to concentrate together to break through my deep pondering. The part about the moon was I was given to understand they somehow used the moon to “bounce” their message to me or they used it as a focal point for jointly concentrating their efforts. After “they” got my attention, the conversation ended up focusing on one “voice”. At the same time, I could “feel” some knowledge being given to me, actually massive amounts of information, like a huge OC-768 pipe to a single PC. This information was about our future, where things were going, etc. It even included that I would meet someone from “one of the three 'C’s of Ohio”. I had not really been in Ohio, just having driven with my family through on our vacations to the East coast. I could only think of Cleveland and Cincinnati as “C’s”. I did not realize it until about 1981 that my wife was born in Columbus, the capitol of Ohio, who had moved to a suburb of Westerville which was centered on what they called it, “3C Highway”. Much more of the knowledge I was given has come true over the years. The collapse of current civilization hasn’t happened, yet, though. (I’m not too excited about that last one! I’d rather we got our stuff together and worked for a sustainable future.)

John was, and remains, a unique individual, as are many (if not most) pioneers, but IMHO he wasn’t crazy and when I worked with him at the Arden Hills operation PLATO project, he actually seemed quite staid. Given some of my own, only slightly less bizarre, experiences as well as my own uniqueness, I have difficulty just dismissing his story as nonsense. But I still don’t know what to make of it.

Thus, I was inspired to write something like Empire. Now we have to do a quick rewind to the early 1960s and a steam tunnel running beneath the University of Iowa. That’s where Ron Resch, the son of a rural Iowan Reformed LDS family, was living when he developed a parametric 3D CAD with some computer scientists there. Fast forward to 1974 and I was to inherit Ron’s work.

I asked around the Lindquist Center for 3D perspective programs and managed to obtain an old FORTRAN card deck. Little did I realize that one of its co-authors had left the University of Iowa for the University of Illinois, preceding my migration to PLATO by some years. At the U of Illinois, he would place a 25 cent bet with the soon-to-be legendary PLATO system programmer, Don Lee, that Don couldn’t do 3D solids rendering with full shading over one weekend. That man was Ron Resch. Ron and Don had been discussing various tricks for dividing perspective drawing problems up into quadrants, and thought they were on the verge of something. Don took Ron’s bet, produced the first 3D ray-trace image of a tetrahedron intersected with a sphere over the weekend and then and took Ron’s 25 cents. Ron also went on to the University of Utah where Evans and Sutherland had produced the world’s first virtual reality system. There Ron took on such notable students as Alan Kay and Jim Blinn.

Dream check #2: While I was working with him, Leif Brush held an exhibition of computer art from two artists. One of them was a music composer from the University of Illinois whose work was quite forgettable. The other was from Utah and had shaded 3D renderings of strange abstract objects that fascinated me enough that I almost went to Utah instead of Urbana. Little did I realize these fascinating ray-traced color images were by Ron Resch, the same man who had blazed the 3D graphics trail prior to me at the University of Iowa. Nor did Leif Brush realize the three-way connection between U of U, U of IA and U of IL. Two decades years later I found myself sharing a 3-office space with Ron and the remnants of the Xanadudes, including Keith Henson of “The Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition” and L5 Society fame. We were all recruited, independently, to reengineer an insurance company having, apparently, nothing else in common to draw us together but some sort of weird history, which we discovered during our lunch conversations.

Once I had The Formulas in hand, I quickly hacked out my first 3D graphics program on PLATO.

As one might imagine, it was a very exciting time. To see a dynamic mathematical space open up in full perspective visuals for the first time was an intoxicating experience. As most authors must experience when they are possessed of their muse, it felt like I was simultaneously creating and discovering a new universe – but this was even more captivating and visceral!

At first, the space consisted of a few simple geometric wire frames but within a few days progressed to 3D representations of Empire’s 2D space ships. I then made it possible to move around them as the first person with single key strokes (the qweadzxc octa-directional keys for altitude and azimuth and + and – for acceleration and decelleration) while others looked on from their vantage points in Spasim space.

A vital aside: The, then, love of my life longed-for since our small-town Iowan adolescence together, who will remain mercifully unnamed, didn’t entirely understand my obsessive behavior. Once I “attained” her, I focused heavily on my creation and frequently came “home” to Hillcrest dormitory at dawn. As one might expect, we had problems typical of Baby Boomers in the middle of the Sexual Revolution and Women’s Liberation. Further, she saw what I was doing as playing kid games with adult tools; which was somewhat accurate as far as she could see. Finally, being an earthy sort, focused on the humanities, she was more interested in Tolstoy than in creating and discovering strange new worlds. Although we were in the Iowa City Writer’s Workshop as undergraduates together, and both shared a love of creativity, it wasn’t enough to bind us, even with our shared adolescence and early adult development. Her parting words were: “Pursue the work you love.” Deprived of the joys of human love, I buried myself more obsessively in the work at hand – not that the work benefited from that sort of devotion. I was fortunate to have had enough self-esteem that I could continue on. Unfortunately, I saw many budding inventors like myself crushed by similar situations, living, as many of them did in male-saturated engineering environments where most women had too much sexual power and youthful foolishness for their own good. In retrospect, ours was a story repeated, not only by myself later in life, but throughout the U.S. untold countless times through the two decades that Baby Boomer “nerds” were creating what would become the Internet, leaving a carnage of broken relationships, and sometimes families, in its wake. The irony may be a bit thick, but it bears saying with some seriousness that zoo keepers will one-day transfer their knowledge of gibbon breeding to inventors and their mates. It certainly would help technology along because invention becomes less relevant when it is used as an emotional anesthetic rather than growing from a creative dream. Until then: Oh, the humanity!

By this time, word was getting around the PLATO network that I had developed something very interesting. One of the first people to show interest was Silas Warner. He asked if he could have the inspect code (password) for Spasim so he could show the code to a new programmer. I obliged. About 2 weeks later, the heritage of flight simulators that gave rise to Microsoft Flightsimulator was born in the form of Silas’s latest game: Air Race (spelled, “Airace” I believe). I didn’t really mind Silas doing this because, after all, Empire, which he and John Daleske had shown me in its early stages, had inspired me to write Spasim.

The popularity of Silas’s Air Race caught up with Spasim’s and soon surpassed it, partly because his game was simpler to play and partly because he had an existing reputation for doing good games on PLATO. Even so, Spasim had quite a following. There was starting to be a late night cult around the game, which took enormous slices out of the 1 MIPS CDC Cyber 6400 CPUs in order to run all 32 players at competition speeds (frame rates a lot higher than 1 per second).

The New Spasim

One of the individuals who heard about this strange character sitting off by himself midst the Iowa Corn Fields with his 3D phenomenon, was George Carter who, along with Stuart Umpleby, had obtained a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a computer-based Delphi conferencing system. They were trying to realize a man-machine cybernetic vision of this magical little gnome named Heinz von Foerster and needed an email system to go along with it. When George saw my code (which I volunteered), he hired me to write an email system for them over the summer. When the semester was over, I threw a few things into my ‘64 Chevy Impalla, and headed east on Interstate 80 across the Illinois border for Urbana and CERL. It was my first paying job as a programmer.

Arriving at the Mecca of networking and meeting the magical little gnome who founded second order cybernetics (symbolized by the Ouroboros) in his Biological Computer Laboratory was an amazing experience. I don’t know much about von Foerster’s theories, but I do know he exuded energy and humanity in such abundance that it lifted spirits and excited intellects around him. I’ve never met anyone like him since. It is understandable to me that there is a bit of a cult of personality surrounding The Cybergnome of Vienna.

When I set out to design the second version of Spasim, my apartment mate, a metallurgy student named Frank Canzolino with an excellent grasp of 3D geometry from his study of crystaline structures, helped me optimize and generalize the 3D graphics formulas quite a bit. But I wanted to do something more significant with the second version of Spasim than just optimize its graphics. The whole idea of positive-sum game playing was innately appealing to me, being from a farming family, and it was being drummed into my head by the game theoretic discussions of the second order cybernetics crowd surrounding von Foerster.

I decided to build a positive-sum aspect into the second version of Spasim based on the idea of space resource utilization.

A vital side note: Heinz von Foerster had published a paper in 1960 on global population: von Foerster, H, Mora, M. P., and Amiot, L. W., “Doomsday: Friday, 13 November, A.D.” 2026, Science 132, 1291-1295 (1960). In this paper, Heinz shows that the best formula that describes population growth over known human history is one that predicts the population will go to infinity on a Friday the 13 in November of 2026. As Roger Gregory likes to say, “That’s just whacko!” The problem is, after he published the paper, it kept predicting population growth better than the other models. (see section 4.1 “Systems Ecology Notes”) One of Heinz’s early University of Illinois colleagues was Richard Hamming of “Hamming code” fame. Once while visiting the Naval Postgraduate School, I asked Dr. Hamming what he thought of Heinz von Foerster. Professor Hamming’s response was “Heinz von Foerster: Now there’s a first class kook!” I suspect Heinz’s publication of, what Transhumanists call, “the singularity” had really gotten to Hamming – not that Heinz wasn’t eccentric enough get Hamming’s goat in any case. Well, to continue this digression so as to give the damn Transhumanists a much-deserved keyboard lashing: It’s one thing to be a guy like Hamming and denounce Heinz as a “kook” for following his formulae where they lead – it’s another to turn Heinz’s formulae into a virtual religion, call it “the singularity” and totally forget where the idea came from the first place. I suggest the Transhumanists cite Heinz in the future whenever they refer to “the singularity” and think about his assumptions – the primary one being that societies´ success varies directly with population size. It might be good to see if his model fits the data subsequent to the last check of which I am aware – 1973 – which just happens to be right at the point high population density societies decided to abandon their forward progress toward the space frontier.

I had been further inspired to this by my adolescent membership in Zero Population Growth, and my distaste for the solutions proposed by its founder, and author of “The Population Bomb”, Stanford University Professor Paul Ehrlich. Keep in mind, the first moon mission, Apollo 11 flew in 1969, the same year that Paul and Anne Ehrlich published “The Population Bomb” and began encouraging morally responsible middle class youth to cease having children. I say “cease having children” because that was the message I received as an intelligent young idealistic member of Zero Population Growth in a Des Moines Presbyterian church meeting I attended where ZPG was holding a seminar. Then, the last moon misson, Apollo 17, flew in 1972 – the same year that the Club of Rome published its landmark report, Limits to Growth based on a computer simulation of global population growth and resource limits.

Many young men of the Baby Boomer generation were, like myself, shell-shocked at the idea that the Apollo program had turned out to be merely a political contest with the Russians rather than a genuine effort to open up an appropriate outlet for the expression of humanity’s masculine character.

In a subtle and profound way, it was a very dark time to be a young man in the pioneer heritage culture of the Midwest:

* The souring of the Sexual Revolution into openly hostile Women’s Liberation perversely combined with the metastasizing urban wasteland of disco sexuality and incurable sexually transmitted diseases.

  1. The first big oil embargo from the Arab nations.
  2. The first loss of a war by the U.S.
  3. Skyrocketing real estate speculation anticipating Boomer demand.
  4. The start of a long era of inflation combined with economic stagnation – something the economists said couldn’t happen.
  5. A barrage of negative predictions for the future midst growing hostility toward technologists and pioneers.
  6. Closing off of positive options for humanity, as the space program revealed its political character.

I wasn’t really thinking about all of this consciously at the time, but the hideous confluence of circumstances definitely motivated me to act.

I thought up a system of differential equations similar to the Club of Rome’s upon which Ehrlich and others based their ideology of infertility, but allowed for nonterrestrial resources (collectively called “antientropy”) in the equations. Another would soon do the same. J. Peter Vjak’s “Doomsday Has Been Cancelled” (Culver City, California: Peace Press, 1978) was based on a paper generalizing the Club of Rome’s “limits to growth” differential equations to include nonterrestrial resources – a paper which I believe he published as early as 1975. Still others were thinking along the same lines. Gerard K. O’Neill’s physics students in Princeton began looking for a positive role for humanity in leaving all planetary surfaces behind and establishing artificial ecosystems swarming around the stars like glowing green fireflies.



Something was definitely in the air.

Dream check #3: Almost a decade later, in 1983, I wound up working as a computer consultant in an office in La Jolla, CA which received Peter Vjak’s mail after he had moved on to another job prior to my arrival. This consulting job had nothing to do with space, limits to growth, etc.

I sat down at a PLATO terminal next to Danny Sleator and told him I was going to destroy Spasim. He thought I was joking. I went into the “lesson” in edit mode, paged through each part, marking off the blocks to be deleted. Danny’s mouth was agape, and stuttered something like “Y—you’re not really going to do this Bowery.” But I was a man possessed. I hit the SHIFT-HELP key to activate the deletion. Danny sat there stunned. Then he said, “Oh, you’re going to go into the disk utility and recover everything.” I then created a huge common storage that filled up the file space with zeros. Then I deleted it. Danny yelled, “You’re CRAZY!”

Over the next 3 days, “Canzo” and I barely slept as we rewrote Spasim from the ground up using his optimizations and my new game theory design. Cases of Coke and cartons of Marlboros later, it worked like a champ! I gave up drinking Cokes immediately and stopped smoking a bit later.

The audience shrank to about ½ of what it had been because it wasn’t the simple first-person-shoot-em-up theme it once was – you had to strategize more, use warfare sparingly and figure out how to keep your planet stable.

In the new Spasim, you have to find those rare others that will not betray you as you cooperate to get to the very distant and difficult to reach resources. If you find genuine cooperators, or if you can effectively enforce cooperation, you can get out of the normal conflicts and focus on reaching your destiny. And then you win!

The End

See also:


And then there was the failure to incorporate vector graphics in Mosaic… which was actually quite unforgivable given the following history:

The Genesis of Postscript (1981)

By Jim Bowery
Version 20010406
Copyright 2001
The author grants the right to copy, without modification.

The Challenge

I’m offering $500 to the first person who can document the existence of a Xerox PARC communication concerning post-fix notation for page description languages prior to my visit to that facility in November 1981 in my capacity as Manager of Interactive Architectures for Viewdata Corporation of America, the videotex joint venture between AT&T and Knight-Ridder News. Communiques regarding “JaM” are disqualified unless they specifically use the term “page description language”, “typesetting language” or some equivalent phrase, and are appropriately dated.

The History

What was the true genesis of the Postscript?

Here’s a perspective out of left field:

It started with the first scientific calculator ever produced – the Hewlett-Packard 35 – and its reverse polish “postfix” notation.

I saw an HP-35 advertised in Scientific American during my senior year in high school, in 1972, and thought:

“I want one.”

That’s why I worked all summer with “Shorty” the ex-convict, driving garbage trucks with 18 gears I was never properly trained to use and drinking beers so as to Lorenz-contract the days that were punctuated with hot steaming maggots down my neck as bemused debs reclined in their back yards nurturing their future basal cell carcinomas. When I started at the University of Iowa, I forked over my saved up $495 to Hewlett-Packard and instead of a slide-rule on my belt, I had this neat little black pouch that could do it all while flashing tiny red light-emitting-diode numbers – reverse polish operation. I found only one other person on campus who had one – a chemistry professor.

Well, OK, I lied.

What really happened was that while I was working as a garbage man to earn enough money for my HP-35, many mornings at 6AM they would tell me they didn’t need me that day, which is when I would head over to Drake University and wait for my brother to get out of class at noon. That was almost 6 hours away, and I needed some way to pass the time. After poking around a bit on campus, I found this little old 2 story house that had a “Mathematics Department” sign. Inside, off to the left, was a long room. In that room was a desk-top Hewlett-Packard calculator with a flat-bed pen plotter hooked to it. It had more buttons than you could shake a stick at and this little magnetic card you could insert to record the buttons you were pressing, which included comparison and conditional branch buttons. You could program it to not only do calculations, but to move the pen around on the plotter bed that held the paper down with static. It was really cool. I could finally use a lot of that worthless junk about polynomials and stuff I had learned in high school and draw lots of neat op-art patterns with a pseudo-3D look to them.

That desk calculator (I don’t recall the model number), of course, also used reverse polish notation – postfix – to drive its plotter.

By the time I got my HP-35 that fall, postfix operations were second nature to me. When the HP-35 fell in price by a factor of two later that year, it taught me my first lesson of consumerism in the early stages of Moore’s Shockwave, but I never felt jealous of the guys who bought the cheaper Texas Instruments calculators with all that parenthetic noise. Who could think like that?

Postfix was obviously the right way to do things.

Ignoring some history we cut to the chase:

In August 1980, Byte magazine published its issue on the Forth programming language.

At that time, I was working with Control Data Corporation’s PLATO project, pursuing a mass market version of that system using the Intelligent Student Terminal (IST). The IST’s were Z80 processor terminals sporting 512*512 bit mapped displays with touch sensitive screens and 1200bps modems that went for about $1500. We were shooting for, and actually successfully tested, a system that could support almost 8,000 simultaneous users on 7600-derived Cybers (the last machine designed by Seymour Cray to be marketed by CDC --with 60 bits per word, 6 bits per character, no virtual memory, but very big and very fast) with under 1/4 second response time (all keys and touch inputs went straight to the central processor) for $40/month flat rate including terminal rental. Ray Ozzie had been working at the University of Illinois on offloading the PLATO central system to the Z80 terminal through downloaded assembly language programming, doing exotic things like “local key echo” and such functions.

I was interested in extending Ray’s work to offload the mass-market version of the PLATO central system. In particular I was looking at a UCSD Pascal-based approach to download p-code versions of terminal functions – and even more in particular the advanced scalable vector graphics commands of TUTOR (the “relative/rotatable” commands like rdraw, rat, rcircle, rcircleb, etc.) if not entire programs, to be executed offline. Pascal was an attractive choice for us at the time because CDC’s new series of computers, the Cyber 180 (aka Cyber 800) was to have virtual memory, 64 bit words, 8 bit characters and be programmed in a version of the University of Minnesota Pascal called CYBIL (which stood for Cyber Implementation Language). Although this was a radically different architecture than that upon which PLATO was then running, I thought it worthwhile to investigate an architecture in which a reasonable language (you should have seen what we were used to!) could be made to operate on both the server and the terminal so that load could be dynamically redistributed. This idea of dynamic load balancing would, later, contribute to the genesis of Postscript.

Over one weekend a group of us junior programmers managed to implement a good portion of TUTOR’s (PLATO’s authoring language) advanced graphics commands in CYBIL. Our little hunting pack at CDC ‘s Arden Hills Operations was in a race against the impending visit of Dave Anderson of the University of Illinois’ PLATO project who was promoting what he called “MicroTUTOR”. Anderson was going to take the TUTOR programming language and implement a modified version of it for execution in the terminal – possibly in a stand-alone mode. Many of us didn’t like TUTOR, itself, much. Indeed, I had to pull teeth to get the authorization to put local variables into TUTOR – and we were determined to select a better board from our quiver with which to surf Moore’s Shockwave into the Network Revolution. CDC management wasn’t convinced that such a radical departure from TUTOR would be wise, and we hoped to demonstrate that a p-code Pascal approach could accomplish what microTUTOR purported to – and more. We quickly ported a TUTOR central system program to CYBIL – a vocabulary lesson called “The Great Elendo” (teaching how endings are added on to words) – because it had been written in a particularly “structured” manner (by Tom Czwornog for Gary Michael’s crew in Champaign-Urbana on the PLATO system there), and therefore fit well the “structured programming” paradigm pushed by Pascal adherents of the day.

A dramatic aside: We had a bit of a scare when David Woolley the author of PLATO Notes (which would become the inspiration for Ray Ozzie’s Lotus Notes), came in on Monday and was so impressed with what we’d accomplished over the weekened that he swam through all the code we’d written. Unfortunately, there was some confusion and, quite uncharacteristically for Dave, he deleted the wrong file – the one with our code in it which hadn’t yet been backed up by the system operators. Thankfully, rather than committing hara-kiri, Dave just quietly expressed his deep remorse, turned around and during the next 24 hours rewrote the entire program which he had inspected so carefully; all in time to save the demo. Dave is one of the most meticulous people with whom I’ve worked. This is born out by the fact that virtually anyone who has worked in computers for any length of time has made an error like this, but few of us have been able to recover our honor so quickly, gracefully and decisively.

Our little hunting pack bagged the demo, and we continued to be interested in Pascal both on the central server and on the terminal, as a means of dynamically distributing load, but the Cyber 180’s hardware architecture was inadequate and the conversion problems to reimplement PLATO too great for this approach to be practical. It looked as though we would be stuck with Cray’s older architecture that had demonstrated such economic performance in my tests of a version of the PLATO system targeting the mass market (tests run at CDC’s Benchmark Laboratory next to CDC headquarters, right across from the airport in Bloomington).

A tragic aside: CDC mangement refused even to run a market test of the mass market version of PLATO, despite the fact that the financials looked promising, the system was up and running at CDC’s Benchmark Laboratory with fully capable telephone and cable head end interfaces and there were indications that the demand for email, alone, within a metropolitan area would have ensured PLATO’s success in the mass market. I don’t hold CDC’s Bill Norris accountable for this except to the extent that he probably should have just fired all his middle management down to the grunts and spun CDC off into a bunch of small companies, each with its own “Seymour” – something that would have placed Norris in jeopardy from the forces already arrayed against him in Wall Street. If he had taken that draconian action on behalf of CDC’s stockholders, he would almost certainly have produced an explosion of innovation fueled by the high-achieving Midwestern baby boomer population as they entered their careers. Opposition to Norris infected CDC itself, often incited by institutional investors who did not agree with Norris’ vision and were able to set fashions for the fashion-conscious via their influence on the business press. If not for them subverting CDC’s culture of innovation with a culture of popular fashion, combined with Norris’ failure to ruthlessly rid CDC of insubordinates, Norris could have delivered on his vision. I know – I was there and saw to it that PLATO was benchmarked out and ready to ship to the masses at $40/month including IST rental, at the same time HBO was making its first inroads, at least a year before IBM cut its deal with Bill Gates and 4 years before Steve Jobs paid a buxom valkyrie lookalike do a hammer-toss-and-jiggle on his behalf before the stunned eyes of football fans everywhere. I did push on this aspect of the PLATO project hard enough within the programming teams that I became the person most associated with mass-marketing of PLATO in the eyes of my peers and immediate supervisors, and was therefore the person recommended for a key position with Viewdata Corporation of America when that company advertised for a PLATO expert – after, of course, CDC management had rejected my proposed market test of PLATO. It wasn’t enough to be a 26 year old programmer pulling down a Carter-inflation-wage-and-price-controlled $20,000/year. I was in a poor position to by-pass 7 levels of middle management to gain Norris’ ear and Norris’ bet-the-company strategy on filling unmet social needs never meshed with the profound tactical strengths available in the well-funded PLATO system that he was so intent on supporting. The “Personal Computer” might never have risen to the prominence it did. Rather we could have begun the evolution of the “Network Computer” in 1980. It is no exaggeration to say that as a result of CDC’s failure to deploy PLATO to the mass market, Bill Gates is the richest man in the world, midwest computing lost its leadership (which began with the first computer) to the West and the network revolution was delayed at least 15 years. The further ramifications of this critical juncture in history, given the demographic power of the recently-urbanized baby boomer generation on entry to its marrying years in 1980, are radical and profound. I’m sure there are people from Xerox PARC who have similar retrospective concerns, but did Xerox have a man of Norris’ publically articulated vision in the position of command contending with a virtual mutiny of his officers?

It’s interesting if not predictable that it was from the PLATO IST that some of the key thinking directly parallel to, if not critical to, Postscript would arise. The IST was the closest thing to the Apple Macintosh in price and capability prior to the release of the Mac (which was the first PC to use Postscript). It’s also interesting that the Mac ended up with a version of Pascal as its primary system language. Something worthy of study by metahistorians, is that so little history has been recorded about the PLATO IST. At $1500 it was perhaps the most advanced technology of its kind at that time. People had been playing remote 3D graphical multiuser games, at resolutions similar to those supported by the Macintosh, on PLATO, for over 5 years by 1980 when the IST was being produced by the thousands at this low price for use with PLATO.

Having looked at UCSD Pascal’s threaded p-code, the Byte magazine issue on Forth made a good case for considering the Forth virtual machine, not only because of its own compactness, but also the compactness of the programs that it could execute. Although we weren’t so tight on RAM with the IST that we were forced to consider Forth over p-code, the compact representation of executable programs in Forth was a big plus for transmission across the limited bandwidth modems of the era. It wasn’t so compelling compared to p-code as to force an immediate reorientation – particularly given the fact that Pascal was a higher level language than was Forth, as well as matching the central system implementation language CYBIL, and was therefore more appropriate as a primary authoring language. Nevertheless, Forth’s postifix notation reminded me of the good old days with my first HP calculators and drawing those cool pictures on the flat bed plotter.

I admit it – I was hooked on the ideas in Forth and wanted get my hands on a working implementation.

As a consequence of CDC’s refusal to pursue a test of PLATO in the much larger markets made possible by a $40/month service, I accepted a position with Viewdata Corporation of America, a joint venture between AT&T and Knight-Ridder News, as its Manager of Interactive Architectures – primarily because AT&T and Knight-Ridder were familiar with mass markets and were targeting them from the outset. My responsibilities included design of an “authoring system” for the Viewtron videotex system which was being developed by Viewdata for deployment in those mass markets. Unfortunately, I was hampered in this by the prior choice of a Tandem T-16 as the central system upon which to run the service. The T-16 was abysmally weak as a central system compared to the Cyber 760’s (modernized 7600’s) upon which I had benchmarked the mass-market version of PLATO. Nevertheless, I accepted the position with the impression that it might be possible to select a different central system vendor. Certainly it makes little sense to choose a central system vendor before acquiring a manager responsible for “architectures”.

I started at Viewdata the same month that Byte magazine put out it’s famous August 1981 Smalltalk issue. It was immediately apparent that the Smalltalk language and programming environment was superior to anything associated with Pascal. Further, Smalltalk had a similar target audience to PLATO – Alan Kay had even wanted children to be able to program in it. As the person most responsible for devising an authoring system, I was immediately hooked. I had seen the film of Stanford Research Institute’s mouse interface while working on the PLATO Communications Project in 1974 (developing a computer-based Delphi conferencing system) and the Smalltalk system was quite reminiscent of some of what I had seen. This was for good reason, of course, since Smalltalk’s user interface design had benefitted from SRI’s pioneering work.

However, in addition to being saddled with the T-16 as the central system, the Viewtron terminals being designed by Western Electric, although quite capable in other ways, had very limited RAM. What ROM was available in them was being committed to interpret the North American Presentation Level Protocol Syntax (NAPLPS) – which is a fancy way of saying they displayed a vector graphics extension to the ASCII character set. NAPLPS had a marginal “macro” and font definition capability, but was otherwise very limited in its programmability.

Since the Viewtron system was planned to roll-out to all the metropolitan areas in which Knight-Ridder had newspapers, as well as in cities where partner companies had a presence, the architectural challenge of the authoring system involved allowing for geographically distributed programming as well as offloading of the central processors to the terminal processors. PLATO had just started down the path of a distributed file system and networked notes (ala Usenet), so the issues, while not entirely alien, were somewhat new to me. Some of the better work at the time was with Intel’s research into the iMAX operating system and its distributed file system based on the ideas of MIT’s David P. Reed and his 1978 doctoral thesis. Reed’s work had been closely associated with the CLU programming language which was an early object oriented language with strong affinities to Smalltalk. Although the iMAX OS itself ran on Intel’s wildly advanced iAPX432 processor (at PLATO, Dave Woolley and I christened it “the UFO”), and was therefore geared toward the Department of Defense’s design-by-committee language, Ada, the version of “Ada” implemented on the 432 was actually more dynamic than that specified by the DoD. Indeed, the iMAX OS was designed to allow device drivers and system libraries to be dynamically added and altered without rebooting. The “Ada” running on the iMAX OS was so dynamic, it actually had a lot more in common with Smalltalk than the folks at Xerox PARC might have liked to believe. Although I didn’t (and still don’t) see object-oriented programming as the long-term solution to the distributed computing problem, and was in communication with one of the iMAX OS’s contributors, Bruce MacLennan, regarding a radically different approach to programming based on the relational calculus, I did see the Smalltalk and the iMAX’s dynamic “Ada” systems as being mature enough to ride on their strength for the next 5 to 10 years until the relational paradigm was ready for deployment. I hoped that the 432’s hardware design could be sped up as Intel applied its best hardware experts to demultiplexing its microprogramming enough that its fault tolerance and distributed programming strengths could be applied to Viewdata’s unique requirements – if not during the initial roll-out, then in the next generation of the Viewtron network. The first rollout of the 432 would rely on iMAX with its dynamic “Ada” and then later deploy a distributed Smalltalk environment throughout the network, including demand-driven downloads of Smalltalk to the terminals themselves as they became genuine network computers.

All of this led me to begin seriously considering the migration paths from the current “dumb” NAPLPS terminal with T-16 central systems to a programmable terminal which could eventually execute Smalltalk.

As I admitted above, I was hooked on the very idea of Forth, and as it turned out, so was another key figure within Viewdata, Jim Thompson. Thompson, who would later develop Viewtron’s postfix Game Oriented Language for Business and Leisure (GOLFBAL) for actual storage of execution on Viewtron, had a subscription to the Forth Interest Group newsletter and was happy to provide me with all the back issues. It made sense that with less than 8K of RAM in the Western Electric terminals (far less than the PLATO ISTs), and only a little more ROM, the best way to make them fully programmable was to burn the ultra-compact Forth virtual machine into the ROM and use what precious little RAM was available to store tightly threaded, dynamically downloaded Forth “words” for the execution of high level vector graphics primitives through low level interactive graphics programs, transmitted as a stream of compressed definitions and subsequent invocations over the limited-bandwidth phone connections.

A postfix language for page description was thereby conceived – not surprisingly – as part of the first experiment in electronic transmission of newspapers in a highly compressed form.

The migration path from such a low-capability terminal to a fully-distributed authoring system was still unclear, but one thing was clear about Forth’s virtual machine: It could act as a virtual machine for any higher level language, especially a language like Smalltalk. Being a fan of, and having programmed, Seymour Cray’s parsimonious instruction sets and elegantly simple hardware architectures, I appreciated the design intelligence that Chuck Moore brought to the Forth virtual machine. Viewed in this light, Forth was a macro assembly language for a future Forth microprocessor – entirely capable of executing Smalltalk as one of its higher level languages.

The trip to Xerox PARC was inevitable. I was among those from Viewdata who in November of 1981 visited Xerox PARC.

A few things about that trip stand out, but one thing is for certain:

When the subject of NAPLPS came up, I was shown source code written in a page description language in use by Xerox by a member of the Smalltalk team. It was definitely not, a postfix notation. I then spoke on our thoughts of using a tokenized Forth communication protocol to store and transmit programmable graphics for Viewtron’s electronic newsprint. When I did so, I saw an immediate look of reflection pass over the face of our presenter. It was my definite impression that I was seeing the “Aha!” lights turn on at Xerox PARC right then. But our time was limited and the focus was on Smalltalk rather than page description languages, so we moved on with the demonstrations. I honestly don’t recall the name of the person who was showing their PDL, nor who else was present during that conversation. It seemed a causual exchange between two programmers at the time – exchanges in which such “Aha!” events are quite common.

Next year, in 1982, Xerox engineers spec-ed out the “Interpress” page description language – purportedly the first postfix page description language ever. Official accounts vary on whether Interpress was derived from Xerox’s “JaM”, from Xerox’s “Press Format” PDL, or both. It is possible I was shown a “Press Format” source file as it was not a postfix notation. JaM, however, was derived from the “Design System” postfix language for representation of 3D objects developed at Evans and Sutherland and folks from the University of Utah. I can believe that Evans and Sutherland beat the PLATO culture to the punch on this one, as they had a habit of doing on a number of important 3D innovations. But the PLATO system had it’s own coups over Evans and Sutherland, including the first ray traced 3D image of a solids model by Don Lee – PLATO system programmer – under a challenge from Ron Resch, who was from the same University of Iowa computer graphics facility within which I would later write the first 3D multiuser virtual reality game. Ron Resch went on to work with Evans and Sutherland and the University of Utah where he would teach the likes of Alan Kay and others who eventually ended up at Xerox PARC.

Crucial questions remain:

Why was it that in the most advanced aspect of Xerox PARC – the Smalltalk project – the PDL being demonstrated to representatives of a major electronic newspaper project was “Press Format” rather than “JaM”? Was the look of epiphany on the face of the PARC demonstrator upon being told of the device-independent PDL based on Forth, actually him recalling that PARC had its own postfix notation PDL in “JaM” and he simply didn’t mention it for fear of a breach of some sort? We were under nondisclosure agreement at the time, and we were clearly interested in deploying such technology and we were capable of paying for it if not contributing to its standardization – so why not just spit it out? Was the subsequent specification of Interpress merely a concidence, merely parallel development or was it perhaps energized by the realization that a major electronic newspaper project could be on the verge of introducing a JaM-like standard for page layout to the international standards committees?

In the final analysis, except for a billion dollars here or there, and where the profits might have been invested, it hardly matters who actually invented the first postifix page description language. Given the densely entangled identities of the University of Iowa, University of Illinois and University of Utah from which the creation of “Interpress” emerged, not to mention PLATO, Smalltalk and advanced 3D rendering technologies, it is clear that the identity of the actual inventor of the postfix PDL, as well as these other technologies, was a pioneering culture. That culture was plowing new territory cleared out by Moore’s Shockwave with the same energy that plowed the loam, a century earlier, around the locations of those same land grant colleges.

The only real question remaining is whether the capital accumulation will be used to open up fertile fields for future generations to plow, or whether it will merely decay as did Xerox?


After The Gold Rush.

As I asserted in a prior article here:

I had to threaten to resign from that project to hire Tom as I was told I couldn’t hire him but could hire all the H-1bs from India I wanted. That was the largest single risk-capital investment of the DotCon era ($500M in total for “Internet Chapter 2”) and one I had agreed to join rather than pursue an early role with Paypal because I felt there was a fundamental problem with computer science that had held it back from properly addressing networks – and this would have been likely my last chance to complete my professional mission of decentralizing the network.

From Ray Solomonoff’s history of the Dartmouth Summer AI Workshop: