Imagine stepping into a greeting card store to get some tailor-made poetry, written just for you by a computer. This isn’t such a crazy idea, given the recent development of AI-based language models such as GPT-3. But the product I am describing is not at all new. Called Magical poet, it was installed on the first Macintosh computers and rolled out to retail outlets across the country in 1985.
I came across this gem of a fact in November of this year problem of MacUser Magazine – a small article right next to the announcement that Apple was working on the ability to generate digital speech. You see, browsing the computer magazines of the 80s and 90s on the Internet Archive is a hobby of mine, and it rarely disappoints. My tastes tend towards MacUser and Macworld, given my Apple-centric childhood, though I’m also known to delve into some former BYTE. I love the verbosity of old ads, with entire paragraphs devoted to the details of their products. I love when an article describes concepts and ideas that we take for granted now, like the nature of Download and Download. And I love the nostalgia that these magazines evoke, that sense of wonder and possibility that computers brought us when they came into our lives.
But there is more than just fun. I have found that excavating old technology often opens the door to something new.
This is especially the case when you dig, as I like to do, into the very young age strata of personal computers. These old magazines, in particular, describe a sort of Cambrian explosion in the diversity of hardware and software designs; their pages show a stream of lineages long lost in technology and bizarre forms of precursor. You may meet a stand-alone software thesaurus (with testimony from William F. Buckley Jr.!), or a word search generator, or one magazine on floppy disks. And let’s not forget the MacTable, a beech desk made in Denmark to adapt to the Macintosh and its various peripherals.
It was a time when ideas were firmly to explore side of the explore / exploit divide. In the 80s and early 90s we tried a lot of new concepts, many of which seem strange to us today. As these technological possibilities have been squeezed out, we have moved on to feat phase, building what worked best. This has happened with personal computers (and with personal computer desks); but this is equally true in other areas of innovation – just look at the first range of designs for flying machines, for example, or Bicycles.
Some species of technology are disappearing for good reason. the penny-farthing, with its huge front wheel, looks vaguely ridiculous in retrospect – and also quite dangerous. In a Darwinian struggle, he should die. But sometimes an innovation goes out for some other, lesser reason – a reason that is more a function of the market at the time, or other considerations, than any basic tenet of quality. I don’t think anyone misses the experimental steam cars since the start of the automobile age. But inventors and DIY enthusiasts were also working on electric cars at the time – only those failed, like Vannevar Bush once noted, because the batteries were not good enough. In other words, it was a bad time for a good idea.
Many other great ideas have been buried in the past and are waiting to be rediscovered. History is archeology say, with layers to discover and sources of inspiration. HyperCard, for example, was a 1987 software tool for Mac that allowed non-programmers to create their own programs in a way that foreshadowed the current trend of codeless software. A 1988 neural network software package has a family resemblance to the machine learning techniques that are the basis of current technological advances. And from 1994 “electronic briefcase“To help you brainstorm was born in the so-called”thinking tools.“While true extinction can be quite rare in technology—Kevin Kelly argues that no technology ever really goes out– many old software and hardware concepts are disappearing from popular imagination and their widespread use. There is a lot to be learned from digging through the archives.