Sunday, August 28, 2011

Me and Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs announced his retirement as CEO of Apple last Wednesday, August 24, 2011, thirty years after I first encountered the Apple computer. I owe whatever facility I have with personal computers to Jobs. I’m sorry to see him go, and I’m glad he got together with Steve Wozniak in his dad’s garage to found Apple.

I was employed by Battelle’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in 1981, where I’d been hired right after retiring from the Air Force to work on a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) project examining human factors in nuclear power plant design. The NRC initiated the project after the Three Mile Island accident in March 1979, and contracted with PNNL to do the human factors study. I started work with a group of nuclear engineers, some of whom were former Navy submariners, and each of us had been provided the Apple II-plus personal computer. They were okay, but in my view, no giant leap forward in “user friendliness.”

My early experience with computers involved reserving time on the university’s central processor to run programs I’d written in FORTRAN and key punched on Hollerith cards. I waited overnight for the results and if my program didn’t run, I had to find my error and start over again. This was in 1966.

I was still using central computing in the Air Force in 1968, where our programs were stored on paper tape. Later, when I had access to a desktop computer, I was required to use an input/output language via text commands typed on the keyboard and displayed on the screen. This was still the case when I retired from the Air Force in 1981; the year Apple went public (Apple Computer was famously formed on April 1, 1976).

It wasn’t until about 1984 that I came to know and love the Graphical User Interface, or GUI (pronounced gooey). I was assigned as project manager on a contract with the Army to help modernize small caliber ammunition production. Our particular task was to implement an improved quality control system at the Army’s Lake City Army Ammunition Plant (LCAAP) in Independence, MO, by computerizing the measurement and control process using personal computers. The project was known as the LCAAP Production Quality Control System (PQCS) project. When we first toured the WWII-era plant, we found that the quality control line was staffed by women with absolutely no experience with computers and, in fact, a distinct aversion to them.

In a conference back at PNNL one of our computer scientists mentioned a new kind of computer that employed a much easier to use input/output system, employing a mouse, pictures, and standard english, rather than computerize. The system had been developed at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). After some further research, we found that Steve Jobs had toured Xerox PARC, made a deal with them, and was developing a computer using Xerox PARC’s GUI ideas. The computer was known as “Lisa.” Reportedly, Lisa stood for "Local Integrated Software Architecture", but it was also the name of Steve Jobs' daughter.

We purchased several Lisa 2/10 computers and began “playing” with them. We were impressed with their ease of use, but realized that the cost of the machines was prohibitive. However, Apple was coming out with a new line of computers called the “Macintosh;” a smaller, cheaper (at around $2500) computer with an attached keyboard and mouse for input, and a built-in screen for output. We purchased several machines, bundled them up, and headed back to Lake City to try and convert the women to computer users.

Initially, things didn’t look good, as a number of the women when told that they would input data by clicking the “mouse,” refused to touch the device. Fortunately, we had a nice looking guy on our team, with curly hair, blue eyes, a personable manner, and the patience of Job (pun intended). He worked with a more pliable member of the women’s group and taking her hand in his gently placed it on the mouse and guided her through the motions of inputting data. She became a convert and began working to convince the other women to cooperate. We went back to PNNL and began programming the PQCS.

Not only was implementation of the PQCS at LCAAP a success, but staff at PNNL began coming around to see what members of my project team were using as their personal computers and before you knew it, Macintosh computers began proliferating in the Lab. My department manager later berated me, only partly in jest, for causing the Lab the problem of providing technical support to both the PC and Macintosh product lines. Of course, Apple's famous and controversial commercial that ran during Superbowl XVIII helped somewhat.
My original Mac had a 7.8 Mega Herz processor, 512 Mega Bytes of internal memory, and a 9-inch monochrome screen. I’m using a Macintosh “MacBook Pro” laptop to write this piece. It has a 2.5 GHz processor, 4 GB of internal memory, and 15-inch color screen. It cost me $600 less than my original Mac. I love it.

Thanks, Steve!

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1 comment:

Richard Badalamente said...

Steve Jobs died Wednesday, October 5, 2011.