I’m always fascinated that someone designed just about everything you use, no matter how trivial it is. The keyboard you type on, the light switch you turn on, even the faucet handle. They don’t just spontaneously grow on trees, so some human being had to build it and probably had at least a hazy design in mind when they started it.
Some things are so ubiquitous that it is hard to remember that someone had to dream them up to begin with. A friend of mine asked me the other day why we use Control+X and Control+V to manipulate the clipboard almost universally. Control+C for copy makes sense, of course, but it is still odd that it is virtually universal in an industry where everyone likes to reinvent the wheel. I wasn’t sure of the answer but figured it had to do with some of the user interface standards from IBM or Sun. Turns out, it is much older than that.
While things like object oriented computing and model-view-controller are old hat these days, when Smalltalk burst on the scene, many people had never heard of these new ideas. While the little language with roots at Xerox and based on Simula never caught fire, it was very influential in a number of ways. Now Smalltalk luminary [Dan Ingalls] has the Smalltalk Zoo, a collection of Smalltalk-related items including several historical simulations you can run in your browser.
Every piece of technology starts with a vision, a vague notion of how a thing could or should be. The computer mouse is no different. In fact, the mouse was built to be an integral part of the future of personal computing — a shift away from punch cards and mystery toward a more accessible and user-friendly system of windowed data display, hyperlinks, videoconferencing, and more. And all of it would be commanded by a dot on the screen moving in sync with the operator’s intent, using a piece of hardware controlled by the hand.
The stuff of science fiction becomes fact anytime someone has the means to make it so. Often times the means includes another human being, a intellectual complement who can conjure the same rough vision and fill in the gaps. For Douglas Engelbart’s vision of the now-ubiquitous computer mouse, that person was William English.
William English was born January 27, 1929 in Lexington, Kentucky. His father was an electrical engineer and William followed this same path after graduating from a ranch-focused boarding school in Arizona. After a stint in the Navy, he took a position at Stanford Research Institute in California, where he met Douglas Engelbart.
Engelbart showed William his notes and drawings, and he built the input device that Englebart envisioned — one that could select characters and words on the screen and revolutionize text editing. The X/Y Position Indicator, soon and ever after called the mouse: a sort of rough-yet-sleek pinewood derby car of an input device headed into the future of personal computing.
William’s mouse was utilitarian: a wooden block with two perpendicular wheels on the bottom, and a pair of potentiometers inside to interpret the wheels’ X and Y positions. The analog inputs are converted to digital and represented on the screen. The first mouse had a single button, and the cord was designed to run out the bottom, not the top.
Even if we don’t quite understand what’s happening in a Bitcoin mine, we all pretty much know what’s needed to set one up. Racks of GPUs and specialized software will eventually find a few of these vanishingly rare virtual treasures, but if you have enough time, even a Xerox Alto from 1973 can be turned into a Bitcoin mine. As for how much time it’ll take [Ken Shirriff]’s rig to find a Bitcoin, let’s just say that his Alto would need to survive the heat death of the universe. About 5000 times. And it would take the electricity generated by a small country to do it.
Even though it’s not exactly a profit center, it gives [Ken] a chance to show off his lovingly restored Alto. The Xerox machine is the granddaddy of all modern PCs, having introduced almost every aspect of the GUI world we live in. But with a processor built from discrete TTL chips and an instruction set that doesn’t even have logical OR or XOR functions, the machine isn’t exactly optimized for SHA-256 hashing. The fact that [Ken] was able to implement a mining algorithm at all is impressive, and his explanation of how Bitcoin mining is done is quite clear and a great primer for cryptocurrency newbies.
The Xerox Alto was a minicomputer that had a lot of firsts to its name: first GUI, first Ethernet connection, and first computer to use a laser printer. This is the computer that inspired Steve Jobs to build the Lisa. And this was built all back in 1973! So when [Ken Shirriff] and a team of other old-computer aficionados got their hands on one, you know they’d get to work.
[Ken]’s blog describes the start of what’s sure to be a long journey. It mostly describes the Alto system and locates its place in computer history, but there are some interesting sidelines as well — like how [Alan Kay] also basically outlined all of the functionality of the modern laptop / tablet along the way to the Alto; it was supposed to be an interim Dynabook.
Work on this grandfather-of-modern-computers is just getting started, and [Ken] and crew are dusting off the power supplies and cataloguing memory boards. You can be sure that we’ll follow along with this restoration project, and keep you informed.
Ah yes, the classic Mission Impossible ultimate message security — after verification and playing the message, poof — it’s gone. You could design explosives into your electronics to have the same effect… or you can use Xerox PARC’s new chip, which features a self-destruct mode.
Wait, what? Yup — some engineer at Xerox decided to develop a chip that can literally self-destruct. It was developed for DARPA’s vanishing programmable resources project, and well, it sounds pretty promising for the future of high-security applications. Continue reading “This Post Will Self Destruct In 10 Seconds”→