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Two-Bit History

Computing through
the ages

• The story of Microsoft’s founding is one of the most famous episodes in computing history. In 1975, Paul Allen flew out to Albuquerque to demonstrate the BASIC interpreter that he and Bill Gates had written for the Altair microcomputer. Because neither of them had a working Altair, Allen and Gates tested their interpreter using an emulator that they wrote and ran on Harvard’s computer system. The emulator was based on nothing more than the published specifications for the Intel 8080 processor. When Allen finally ran their interpreter on a real Altair—in front of the person he and Gates hoped would buy their software—he had no idea if it would work. But it did. The next month, Allen and Gates officially founded their new company.

Over a century before Allen and Gates wrote their BASIC interpreter, Ada Lovelace wrote and published a computer program. She, too, wrote a program for a computer that had only been described to her. But her program, unlike the Microsoft BASIC interpreter, was never run, because the computer she was targeting was never built.

• I recently stumbled across a file format known as Intel HEX. As far as I can gather, Intel HEX files (which use the .hex extension) are meant to make binary images less opaque by encoding them as lines of hexadecimal digits. Apparently they are used by people who program microcontrollers or need to burn data into ROM. In any case, when I opened up a HEX file in Vim for the first time, I discovered something shocking. Here was this file format that, at least to me, was deeply esoteric, but Vim already knew all about it. Each line of a HEX file is a record divided into different fields—Vim had gone ahead and colored each of the fields a different color. set ft? I asked, in awe. filetype=hex, Vim answered, triumphant.

• Subscribers to Popular Electronics were a sophisticated group. The magazine’s editor, Arthur Salsberg, felt compelled to point out as much in the editorial section of the December 1974 issue. The magazine had received letters complaining that a recent article, titled “How to Set Up a Home TV Service Shop,” would inspire a horde of amateur TV technicians to go out and undercut professional repairmen, doing great damage to everyone’s TVs in the process. Salsberg thought this concern was based on a misunderstanding about who read Popular Electronics. He explained that, according to the magazine’s own surveys, 52% of Popular Electronics subscribers were electronics professionals of some kind and 150,000 of them had repaired a TV in the last 60 days. Moreover, the average Popular Electronics subscriber had spent $470 on electronics equipment ($3578 in 2018) and possessed such necessities as VOMs, VTVMs, tube testers, transistor testers, r-f signal generators, and scopes. “Popular Electronics readers are not largely neophytes,” Salsberg concluded.

• Github was launched in 2008. If your software engineering career, like mine, is no older than Github, then Git may be the only version control software you have ever used. While people sometimes grouse about its steep learning curve or unintuitive interface, Git has become everyone's go-to for version control. In Stack Overflow's 2015 developer survey, 69.3% of respondents used Git, almost twice as many as used the second-most-popular version control system, Subversion. After 2015, Stack Overflow stopped asking developers about the version control systems they use, perhaps because Git had become so popular that the question was uninteresting.

• Lines of code longer than 80 characters drive me crazy. I appreciate that this is pedantic. I’ve seen people on the internet make good arguments for why the 80-character limit ought to be respected even on our modern Retina-display screens, but those arguments hardly justify the visceral hatred I feel for even that one protruding 81st character.

There was once a golden era in which it was basically impossible to go over the 80-character limit. The 80-character limit was a physical reality, because there was no 81st column for an 81st character to fit in. Any programmers attempting to name a function something horrendously long and awful would discover, in a moment of delicious, slow-dawning horror, that there literally isn’t room for their whole declaration.

• The miraculous thing about Tim Berners-Lee is that he was the perfect person for the job.

In 1989, when Berners-Lee first proposed the idea that would become the World Wide Web, exciting things were happening in the realm of computing. A new set of standards called TCP/IP were allowing previously isolated computer networks to talk to each other. These standards had become popular, particularly in the American scientific community. By 1989, TCP/IP was also just starting to be adopted by commercial service providers like CompuServe.

• In 2001, Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, published an article in Scientific American. Berners-Lee, along with two other researchers, Ora Lassila and James Hendler, wanted to give the world a preview of the revolutionary new changes they saw coming to the web. Since its introduction only a decade before, the web had fast become the world’s best means for sharing documents with other people. Now, the authors promised, the web would evolve to encompass not just documents but every kind of data one could imagine.