Computer Comedy #1

Milestones in the History of Computing

by Chris Miksanek

c. 1991 Chris Miksanek and MISinformation

Part I: In the Beginning...

"So Let It Be Written to Disk. So Let It Be Done"

-Opening Line From The Dead Sea Floppies

The First Hands On Computer

Many people, when they think of the origin of computers tend to think of Adam and Eve; probably something to do with Mattel's ill-fated "Adam" and Apple's "Apple." Or maybe it has to do with that awful joke concerning Adam's Wang.

Suffice to say, Adam and Eve likely did not have computers as we know them. However, if we allow that a computer is anything that assists us in computations then Adam and Eve did indeed have computers. Fingers were the earliest computing devices. 'Till this day, we refer to both numbers and fingers as digits. Base-10 arithmetic may well have been deployed for ten very obvious reasons.

The Abacus: Man's First Mechanical Computer

When you hear the word 'abacus' you probably think of the guy who did Mr. Magoo's voice, or the band who hit the top-10 in the 70's with the song, "Waterloo." But the abacus was actually the first mechanical computer.

The Chinese invented it to help in their pyrotechnic calculations. It replaced their fingers as calculation devices due in whole to that fact that so many miscalculations of powder mixtures had reduced their base-10 math to base-9 then later to base-8 and base-7...i.e., they kept blowing-off their fingers. When they reached their last six, they realized they desperately needed a more reliable calculating machine.

The abacus survived for thousands of years and even today pops up now and then to assist in hex-arithmetic when the computer is down.

New Math is Developed

With the introduction of the abacus, there was a need for a new math, an organized math.

New math had an advantage over old math. It was documented. In old math, for example, anyone with a little bamboozle in their blood could claim a poker pot. If for example, a brickmaker held four 10s against a learned philosopher/mathema-tician's pair of 3s, the learned man could argue that four 10s were but four 1's because a zero is nothing (this learned man was a student of Socrates). "Four multiplied by one is but four; while three times 2 equaled six. Therefore the pair of 3s beat the four 10s," he would reason.

Of course, new math or old math, the brickmaker would be fooled. Had he attempted to do multiplication on his fingers, four times ten would still be zero because he had no place to carry-over the four-he lost all of his toes in a freak oxcart accident.

Moses Parts Red's "C" Program: The Subroutine is Invented

It is not know how Moses came about incurring the rather of the Pharaohs. There has, of course, been a book written on the matter, but evidence recently uncovered at the tape vault of Caperna suggests Moses was brought in as a highly-paid consultant who, as then chief scribe Al-Fassal wrote, "didn't know thine ass from thine ground that had been plowed but not yet sown."

Babylon By Bus: Hammurabi, the Father of Structured Programming

Like Michelangelo's David (you know, the sculpture in the shopping atrium of CAESAR'S PALACE that has all the women running to the one-arm-bandits), Hmmurabi's Code is an inspiration to all who gaze upon it.

The so-called golden code contains not one single GOTO. Millenia ahead of his time, Hammurabi laid the groundwork for what we call structured programming. Indeed, like the Holleriths, Booles, and Babbages to follow, Hammurabi left a legacy that stretches farther than a library of unraveled tapes.

205 B.C.: Data Encryption is Introduced

Ptolemy V was the data security officer for all of Macedonia; it was his job to ensure that secret messages and other sensitive data be transmitted with the utmost of integrity; who knows how someone might react if they knew their country was about to be invaded by the Roman Empire in a hostile takeover attempt to rival that of the Donald Trump/Merv Griffin Resorts International battle? Prior to 205 B.C., Ptolemy had his work cut out for him. The computer operators could neither read nor write and posed no risk to him or his empire.

However, with the introduction of the McGuffy Reader in the summer of '05, no longer could Ptolemy and his subordinate security officer, Monogamy, share such inside jokes as, "How many slaves does it take to build a pyramid?"

"Two-Hundred Thousand. One to cut the stone and 199,999 to carry it!"

Ptolemy developed an encryption standard. Henceforth, all messages would be transmitted in a cryptic language-a language that was Greek to most people. The key used to encrypt and decrypt was the Rosetta Stone, named for Ptolemy's concubine at the time, Rosetta Manishewitz.

Ptolemy's model remained the encryption standard for nearly two-thousand years until a young hacker named Champollion broke the code. It was at this time a new more undecipherable language began to emerge, that of the American politician or blowhard as they've come to be called.

The Data Center at Pompeii: A Text-Book Lesson in Business Resumption

In 79A.D., disaster planning was put to the test as Mt. Vesuvius, the first recorded core dump, annihilated data centers for miles. Within 24-years, batch jobs and online systems were running as if nothing happened.

Part II: The DP Renaissance

"Out, damned static cling!"

-Lady Macbeth preparing for an Important Presentation

Before the Silicon Valley, There was the Sherwood Forest

Richard the Lion-Hearted may have been away fighting gallantly in the Holy Crusades, but back in merry old England another war was taking place: a technological war.

The best sorcerers in the land, led by Merlin himself, were busily developing a new CPU based not on the beads of an abacus, or pulses of electricity, but a new processor that crunched numbers as described by documentation of the time:

"Camelot Technology thanks you for purchasing the 386 Excalibur -a processor fit for a knight.

"The 386Ex represents an improvement over the 286Ex. Biting the head off a live chicken and chanting, 'Washa, tvasha, Nitche; Son of a, Son of a Glitch', has been incorporated into the microcode. Booting-up is now faster and simpler.

"How does the 386Ex work? If you knew that, we would have to kill you. Powerful technology like that incorporated in the 386Ex can only be comprehended by wizards and sorcerers. Suffice to say, 386Ex works because of magic."

Robin Hood was a venture capitalist drummed from the inner circle, or round table as it was known, over ethics issues-his corporate raiding methodologies were less subtle than the current method of killing everyone and taking all their possessions. Robin was a friend to the start-up company.

Because of him, many of the top technological secrets of the time (no insignificant example was the pouring of a virgin goat's blood on the output of an accounts receivable batch run) were passed from the clutches of opportunistic lords to the hands of enterprising serfs and their small but burgeoning companies.

For years, this technological status quo was maintained. Then one sunny afternoon a Connecticut Yankee happened by with optical storage technology. While no one including King Arthur himself could agree with what to make of this new "wizardry," there was one thing they all agreed on: the outsider was immediately burned at the stake. They weren't called the dark ages for nothing.

Southern California Slashes its Zeros.

After working with any alpha-numeric set long enough, the letters and numbers start to look alike. Nowhere is this more apparent than in data processing where the most heard phrase next to, "Does anyone have today's Far Side?" is, "Is that a zero or an O?"

It was the padres of the old missions who first slashed some of the letters and numbers to distinguish them. (This time also saw the erection of Padre Felipe's bird houses in the meditation gardens of his Mission de Capistrano. Said Felipe in his journal, "I was compelled to do this thing. Each night, a voice told me, 'build them and they will come.' Years later, I'm still cleaning the droppings.")

Don Diego, a sometime aristocrat and other time agent provacateur, was the first on record to exploit the slashed character set. While protesting unfair government action against the peons, Diego would leave the often times cryptic and confusing trademark initial of his alias and alter-ego, Zorro. After implementing the new font, though, nevermore, upon gazing at the sword-etched character, would the townspeople ask, "Is that a zee or a two?" From this point on, Diego would leave the following behind: <<GRAPHIC: SLASHED-Z>>

The Renaissance Produces Da Vinci, Boccaccio, and the First I/O device

The 16th Century saw the release of many publications that influence us today. Included in Pierre de Ronsart's, "My Book of Rhyming Bunches of Words," for example, is the classic, "I See London" sonnet. About the same time, Joachim Du Bellay's, "You Don't Have to Call Me 'Sire,' The Whole World Calls Me 'Hank.'" was also published-much to the chagrin of Henry II who henceforth was called, "Hank" by rural types.

This period also saw the release of the underground classic, "Looking Out For Number Two," written by monk and notorious hemorrhoids sufferer Friar Tucks.

Tucks had been experimenting with various substances for medicinal purposes when he discovered that a mixture of graphite and clay left a black line wherever it was spread. This composite, Tucks recognized, was particularly well-suited for applying to the edges of coins for bar-room laughs. He sandwiched it in wood and called it #2.

For 400 years, Tucks's #2 pencil served as a rudimentary input device. Then, in 1840, Dixon Ticonderoga, an elementary school teacher and one time vice-presidential candidate (had, "Tippecanoe and Ticonderoga too" fit on delegates's hats, history would surely have been re-written), instructed his first-grade class to fill-in the answers of their phonics test with a #2 pencil. This was considered an improvement over the previous day's request to complete the test with smeared grape-skins, but would not be fully appreciated until years later when one of his students, Kasmere Falcone, would grow up to invent the first electronic tabulating machine to sense the unique magnetic quality of the graphite.

Ironically, like Tucks, neither would Ticonderoga live to sees the exploitation of his development. In an ironic turn of events that would later be documented in a 1921 Chicago police report, as "being in the wrong place at the wrong time," Ticonderoga was stabbed in the heart with a mechanical pencil by a bootlegger.

Shakespeare's Greatest Tragedy

It is common knowledge that Shake-speare was a prolific writer. But a secret to all but the most astute computer history buffs is his greatest comedy/tragedy: The documentation for a CICS online of the time.

Unfortunately, because of its propensity to crash at any hour of the night, the online was coined a "Midsummer Night's Down-time" and was quickly shelved.

Truly a greater tragedy was the loss of the original documentation, though scholars of the time archived at least one menu prompt for posterity: "To logoff or not to logoff, that is the question. What is your answer? Enter Y to proceed with session termination."

Part III: The Past 200 Years

"AhhGgg! Help Me! Help Me! Jeez It Burns! It Burns! Help Me! Help Me!"

-Ben Franklin on the First Power Surge

The First Man is Paged To a Computer Room

In 1864, Abraham Lincoln became the first man paged to a computer room. The words, "Abe Lincoln, dial four-score-three-eight. Abe Lincoln, four-score-three-eight" remain as immortal as those that begin, "Here's a story of a lovely lady."

Frank Spivak Introduces Boolean Logic

Frank Spivak was a confederate and a professional bowler.

His colorful prowess on the circuit afforded him the ability to befriend many others of his discipline. Having bettered the best of them, Spivak was the cause of many career swings.

Many people, for example, had no idea that prior to his stint as an actor, John Wilkes Booth was a 185-bowler. Observing that Booth's melodramatic delivery was far superior to the result of that delivery, Spivak steered Booth to an open casting for Thurio in Two Gentlemen of Verona. The rest, as they say, is history.

Too, did Spivak deliver young Andy Carnegie-who ran away from his father's deli years prior-from a 67-pin handicap and a professional career sure to be filled with hungry days and nights. "Bowling's not for you, boy," Spivak told Carnegie, "Get yourself a job in the steel mills. There, you'll never have to want for."

In 1854, Spivak came upon a squalid young man drinking 5 beers just outside a bordello in St. Louis. "He impressed me with his knowledge of ichthyology," Spivak told his biographer in 1899. "He said his name was George Boole and he wanted to be a bowling commentator.

"He wasn't savvy to any of the bowling lingo though-he didn't know the difference between Granny's Teeth and a 7/10 split or Railroad as we called it in homage to the underground railroad of the time. I sat and he bought me beer. Then he started asking me questions about bowling. He said he believed there was a great deal of math involved. I said, 'It just had to do with rolling a ball down an alley.'

"He asked me what some of the more difficult spares were. I said there were three: having to pick up the seven AND the ten; having to pick up the seven OR the ten; or, for some kind of beer bet, having to pick up either the seven or the ten, but not both (XOR, ed.).

"I just said it as a joke, you know, to accentuate how hard it is to pick up the seven/ten. You know, a joke. But Boole, this guy was writing away, taking notes. It made me nervous. I broke a beer bottle over his head and went back to my hotel room."

Voice Mail is Put Into Service

In 1874, Alexander Graham Bell became the first man to implement voice mail. The first digitalized message: "Hello, this is Alex, I'm away from my office right now, but if you leave your name, number, and time you called, I'll get back to your as soon as I can."

Because this invention preceded the telephone, it would be two years before any messages are left and three before the calls are returned.

The Acronym is Introduced

Before there was Babar the Elephant, there was FUBAR the mouse. So named in 1888 by Charles Moreland, Phd., this prototype peripheral device never quite turned out the way Moreland envisioned it.

Later that year, in what was never determined to be an unrelated incident, Moreland applied for and was granted a patent for a device that extracted salt from salt water taffy, allowing those monitoring their sodium to partake of the delicacy of the time.

The First Computer-Related Copyright Infringement Case Is Filed in Federal Court

In 1897, Bram Stoker created his fictionalized blood-sucking beast. IBM quickly sued claiming the character was derived from their licensing agreements.

The case is still pending.

Squeaky Mulligan Is Introduced to the UNIX Operating System

Jeff Mulligan was a glass delivery man. One afternoon, in 1902, a large pane he was carrying, slipped out of his hands separating him from his old operating system, introducing him to the UNIX way of life.

J.P. Morgan Has Corned Beef and Babbage for Dinner

Charles Babbage is often considered the father of computing. He envisioned a mechanical computing machine called the analytical engine, or as it was known to the detractors of the time, the snazzy-abacus.

In one of his many unsuccessful attempts at securing financial backing, Babbage met with financier J.P. Morgan in Morgan's lavish Long Island Estate. They dined on corned beef and baked potatoes. Morgan couldn't maintain his concentration, though, as fellow industrialists of the time hid behind large drapes in the dining room and made light of Babbage's fanciful ideas and multi-colored socks.

Babbage never saw his machine created though is remembered fondly by computer historians for drawing complicated pictures of it.

Herman Hollerith is Arrested in Boston

Tab cards have been responsible for bringing us a better way of life. Many an otherwise humbug Christmas have been brightened by the appearance of the yuletide tab-card wreath brightly spray-painted in gold, red, or green.

In 1928, they were responsible for bringing Herman Hollerith to a Massachusetts court house. Hollerith was arrested on assault charges for throwing the confetti that blinded Jack Valletti at a New Year's Eve party. This would be only the 1st of several accidents where dangerous tab-card punch is used as confetti.

Hollerith was later acquitted.

The First Network is Brought Online

In a matter of minutes, as the first BBS was dialed into from Boston, Massachusetts in 1914, Dolly Madison's poster was no longer most popular as the semi-nude download of Sarah Bernhardt quickly reached a triple digit access count.

Not coincidentally, with this early hot software also emerged the decompression standard in PC computing: UNZIP.

The Psychedelic Sixties, LSD, And IBM Ingenuity Produce Donut-Storage

Haight-Ashbury, prior to becoming a bastion for would-be free-lovers and free-basers was a bastion for would-be computer engineers and software developers. One crossover from the former to the latter was Frick Coulomb, a custodian from MIT on Spring Break.

"Coulomb," computer historians would later learn, "had an instinct for computer technology. This instinct was found rather than bred. More specifically, found in the trash at MIT. While corporate spies at UNIVAC were deciphering plans stolen from a Princeton Professor's podium developing the bagel-storage matrix, Coulomb knew the bagel matrix was too dense (not to mention unorthodox). He also knew that what UNIVAC was working from were not plans, but Professor Hymen Birnbaum's mother's recipe for Passover treats. The items were what was needed from the store, not what was needed for the core as UNIVAC so erroneously presumed."

A great discovery to say the least.

After turning his development over to IBM in 1965, Coulomb would never again sweep floors for MIT. In May of that year, he began sweeping floors for IBM.

The First Personal Computer is Introduced,

But it is the Linoleum Sale That Gets the Press

Textile manufacturer Tandy Inc. acquired Radio Shack in the 1970's. With the fortitude of a 1980's Southern California real-estate developer, they soon introduced the first home computer: the TRS-80.

The TRS-80, was an affordable introduction to personal computing. Additionally, Radio Shack offered free membership into their battery club to anyone who would come into one of their stores and try one.

Apple Computer is Formed on the Heels of The Woz's Less than Successful First Attempt: The Georgia Cling Computer

In 1968, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs spent the first of what would be many hot and sweaty hours in Wozniak's garage in the Northern California city of San Jose. The occasion was Wozniak's discovery of a cache of his father's Playboy magazines. Both were 16 at the time.

Five years later in 1973 they began another collaboration-the Apple I computer. Destined to be a greater success than both their earlier ventures (Jobs' "A Gentlemen's Guide to the Sewers of France," and Wozniak's water-proof sponge), it laid the ground work for the Apple ][. The affordable personal computer had arrived.

Accelerating in popularity and on it's way to achieving terminal velocity, the Apple ][ invaded homes, schools, and offices. Jobs and Wozniak became wealthy beyond their wildest computations.

Did this success change them?

Yes and no.

In 1989, Jobs introduced a new state of the art in his NeXT computer. That same year, Wozniak collaborated on a book of computer jokes and appeared in ads for California's Lotto. True story.

Part IV: Today and Tomorrow

"Read my Specs. No New Functionality!"

-Project leader George Bush in a 1974 management presentation later rescinding in the coding phase blaming the last-minute changes on a "market driven economy."

The IBM PC is Introduced: 128k, "So Who is Needing More?"

Not long after Apple introduced their home computer did IBM jump on the proverbial bandwagon with their IBM PC.

Big Blue had come home and was received not unlike a drunken husband at four a.m.

At a cost far exceeding the capacity of most checkbooks, the PC, or piece of crap as it was affectionately referred to, needed something to get its foot in the doors of middle America.

That foot came in the form of the XT. A more affordable and somewhat more powerful machine, the XT began popping-up on desks across corporate America, then later in the dens and studies of workaholics.

In later years, IBM would introduce both the AT and a new edict for personal computer users, "just when you thought you had all you needed, we introduce something else that you need costing anywhere from $200-$1000 dollars more."

The Early Eighties Shake-up and Shake-out the PC Market

If the 60's were a turbulent time for civil rights, so then were the early 80's for personal electronics.

Many a potential diamond in the rough-Osborne I, TI-99, TRS-80, Atari, Commodore Vic-20 (OK, this one was a piece of coal from the git-go)-went the route of, for lack of a better destination, the crap house.

Only the two-Apple and IBM-would survive. And like other successful pairs before them-Martin and Lewis, Sonny and Cher, Cain and Abel-there were bad times mixed with the good.

For Apple, the bad times came when Steve Wozniak spent millions on two US festivals.

For IBM, the bad times came when they introduced the PC Jr. With its 128k memory, infrared cordless keyboard, and incompatibility synonymous with personal computers, the PC Jr. lived a long (6-month) and prosperous ($250 million write-off) life.


In the late eighties the Scarlet Letter of software pirates stung like a paper cut on the tongue.

What began as someone's practical joke resulted in a lot of people's practical nervous breakdown as viruses spread from program to program and network to network.

Notably, in 1988, computer dysfunction struck the Masters and Johnson clinic where a nasty virus was released. MIS executives attributed it to poor data transmission practices and implemented a safe hex program. No further infections were reported.

1989: The Year of Comebacks

Between fickle fans and greedy/desperate entertainers, there's no level that won't be stooped to. Case in point, the comeback success of "These Boots Were Made For Walking."

The computer industry was not without its own Nancy Sinatras. Throughout 1989, several one-time heroes then later zeros made the headlines once again:

In February, the Radio City Diskettes, Meg and Kay, published their book, "Goin' 'Round," which told the sometimes tragic, sometimes trashy story of their early days in software development when they were in and out of every drive in the business. "We never used file protection," Meg confesses, "It's a wonder there aren't more copies of us out there."

That same month, in order to save their failing industry, dot matrix printer manufactures held their 1st annual PrintFest. It featured Buddy Epson, whom the association coaxed out of retirement to, "Just say no to toner." Epson's cheery speech, highlighted by his two-step, The Tennessee Carriage Return Promenade, did little for the industry as laser printer sales continued to chip away at the impact printer's declining market share.

In August, old cronies Art LinkEditor and Gomer Compiler surfaced once again to complain about the way the industry has treated them. But, as is typical, no one listens. They get their September retirement checks and disappear into obscurity for another year.

The Future of Computers

The three computers that dominate the headlines today are: Supercomputers; Mini, or Lite, computers; and the computers they're equipping police cars with so you'll no longer be able to beat parking tickets.

Industry prognosticators who've predicted that Jimmy Swaggart will develop an electronic black-book program (nookie software) have looked into their crystal balls, black boxes, and dried tea leaves once again for trends of the 90's. Here's what we have to look forward to:

a) "Computers will continue to get smaller and smaller," Eunuch Smidt sees, "In fact, remember that episode of Gilligan's Island, where Gilligan's tooth filling acted like a radio receiver? Well, in addition to smaller computers, that episode will be rerun again."

b) "Steve Jobs introduced his NeXT computer early last year," Joyce Shubert said, "This year I see him releasing THe ONe AFTeR THaT. Later in this decade, possible early next century, probably in 2001, I see Apple introducing HAL. And I see, 524 years after that, a big leap in genetic engineering as you'll pick your son, pick your daughter too, from the bottom of a long glass tube, woe, woe."

c) "IBM will introduce an affordable home computer in the $300-400 range," Clair Azocar foresees, "It will have 128k, one floppy drive and will be announced the day after a warehouse in White Plains is discovered to have three-million PC Jrs. stored there."

d) Industry satirist Chris Miksanek sees the discovery of a cache of forgotten sagas and the publication of "Milestones in the History of Computing: The Lost Chapters" sometime next year.

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