“When we invented the personal computer, we created a new kind of bicycle…a new man-machine partnership…a new generation of entrepreneurs.” Steve Jobs said this and a lot more in 1980 as explored in this annotated twitter thread.
1/ “When we invented the personal computer, we created a new kind of bicycle…a new man-machine partnership…a new generation of entrepreneurs.” — Steve Jobs, c. 1980
Such a remarkable quote and articulation. Some history and innovation, rockets, privacy, ease of use, h/w <> s/w
Apple Computer bicycle of the mind poster created for anniversary campaign. (via auction house photo)
2/ Searching for this quote one finds a fascinating presentation by Steve Jobs sometime in 1980. In this video we see early days of the bicycle quote.
Apple ][ is ~3 years old.
3/ In particular, Jobs references a Scientific American article. A study of efficiency of motion of various animal species. He recalls in the article that the condor was the most efficient, and humans way down the list until using a bike — efficiency in kcal/kg “or something”.
4/ The article is from March 1973 of Scientific American. A detailed look at the history of the bicycle. The chart that was so fascinating is here. You can see just how efficient a human on a bicycle is. No condor though 🙂
Graphic from March 1973, Scientific American article on origin and impact of the bicycle by Wilson.
5/ The remainder of the video 4 super interesting comments that essentially lay out a roadmap for decades.
The motivation for thread was simply how fascinating these points are today, 40 years later.
Reminder, Microsoft revenue from BASIC, etc. ~7M, 40 FTE, SteveB joined.
6/ At 9:15 he talks about how buying a computer is also buying a big problem. Before it can be used you need to learn how to program it (literally in 1980 you programmed a computer if you bought one). Apple wants to solve that problem. Making computing accessible is a core value.
7/ “Our whole company our whole philosophical base is founded on one principle and that one principle is that there’s something very special and very historically different that takes place when you have one computer and one person”
The personal in PC.
8/ At 12:45 he says something few were thinking about which is “we’re going to start chewing up power specifically to help that one-on-one interaction go smoother and specifically not to actually do the number crunching and the database management and the word processing.”
9/ PCs were so under-powered relative to the software at the time, no one was considering doing anything but handling bigger spreadsheets, more records, or more pages in a word processor.
Trying to do ease of use made everything slow. Big tradeoff in memory at this time.
10/ At 18:00 Apple *was* a h/w Co, now over half s/w eng, “more and more software is getting integrated into the hardware — yesterday’s software is today’s hardware so those two things are merging I think and the line between hardware and software is going to get finer and finer”
11/ Four rather profound points:
- make PCs easy to use
- one PC per person beats a computer for 10 people
- use increasing power to make PCs easier to use not compute more
- there is no seam between hardware and software
12/ This is all very interesting. But where did it go from here? I guess Steve liked this analogy. Pretty soon Apple was using it in advertising. The legend is that there was a two page ad in SciAm (in Hertzfeld book) but I couldn’t find it in back issues. Here’s April 1980 WSJ.
Wall Street Journal advertisement, August 13, 1980 (scan via Harry McCracken)
13/ In early 1981, Jef Raskin the leader/initiator of Macintosh took a leave of absence. Jobs felt Macintosh was just a codename and then insisted on calling the project “Bicycle” for the duration. This from Hertzfeld’s book/folklore.org—https://www.folklore.org/StoryView.py?story=Bicycle.txt
Jef Raskin chose the name “Macintosh”, after his favorite kind of apple, so when Jef was forced to go on an extended leave of absence in February 1981, Steve Jobs and Rod Holt decided to change the name of the project, partially to distance it from Jef. They considered “Macintosh” to be a code name anyway, and didn’t want us to get too attached to it.
Apple had recently taken out a two page ad in Scientific American, featuring quotes from Steve Jobs about the wonders of personal computers. The ad explained how humans were not as fast runners as many other species, but a human on a bicycle beat them all. Personal computers were “bicycles for the mind.”
A month or so after Jef’s departure, Rod Holt announced to the small design team that the new code name for the project was “Bicycle”, and that we should change all references to “Macintosh” to “Bicycle”. When we objected, thinking “Bicycle” was a silly name, Rod thought that it shouldn’t matter, “since it was only a code name”.
14/ Then on April 10, 1981 the Space Shuttle was supposed to launch (whoa, that was a sharp turn). Launch scrubbed because of computer issue — voting computers deadlocked. It was crazy. ACM SIGSOFT Software Engineering Notes paper “Bug Heard Round the World” John R.Garman detailed issues. https://www5.in.tum.de/~huckle/space_.pdf
“The Bug Heard Round the World” by John R. Garman in ACM Software Engineering Notes.
15/ That night, on ABC News Nightline show was on computing. Featured 26 year old Steve Jobs. It is tough to believe that he was booked to support a freak out over the shuttle but I don’t know. There were 4 interesting parts of the show.
16/ BTW, Nightline was just a year old and had quickly become the evening show but was head to head with new Letterman. This is super cool — just seeing him on screen like this. It was the height of being newsworthy. Every nerd watched Letterman with Stupid Pet Tricks, Larry Bud Melman, etc.
Steve Jobs on Nightline set with Ted Koppel interviewing him. Screen grab from youtube video.
17/ Some context. In the full year 1980 about 725,000 personal computers were sold:
- 225K TRS-80
- 200K Atari
- 78K Apple ][
- rest “other”!!!
The “personal computer” world was diverse, with a dozen or so companies making thousands of units and maybe a hundred other companies trying stuff out. The standard way to think about a computer was to build or assemble a kit and then start to program. Programs were distributed in newsletters or magazines as printouts and occasionally as tape via postal mail or user groups, but programming was mostly entering octal data. BASIC was the savior and many first programs were tiny basic interpreters. In fact, Dr. Dobbs journal got its start by printing source code to a tiny BASCI interpreter. Then along came BillG and PaulA and a standardized and portable BASIC across all these computers, including Apple.
Dr. Dobbs volume 1, number 1.
Here’s TinyBasic from the issue:
The Osborne I shipped just as Nightline was airing in Spring 1981. My parents got one for our family business! That was my start after using my best friend’s Atari for months.
1981 would see 1.4M PCs, including 35K IBM PC. The IBM PC with MS-DOS launched August 12, 1981 (!)
Exponential growth, doubling every year, is very difficult to imagine. That is a key concept from the time.
18/ First segment details all the wonders of computerization (Bettina Gregory reporting): grocery scanning, airline reservations, new DC metro subway, modern medicine. Even TV — went to ABC archives to show an index search of video (just an index of tapes). Many green screens.
From Nightline, one of the many scenes showing computers in use. Scan from youtube.
19/ “Computers are such a part of life that many people believe computers don’t invade their privacy…life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness is inevitably linked to a computer.”
How’s that for east coast optimism?
20/ Ken Kashiwahara then reports “Computers are being welcomed in schools, work, and homes without any mention of invasion of privacy” and discusses all the popular home uses.
Jobs adds “This is a 21s century bicycle.” and impact on society will be bigger than petrochemicals.
Ken Kashiwahara is reporting legend. He was the first Asian male network news reporter. One of his first major on-air reports was during the end of the Vietnam War airlift out of Saigon. He only made it out because a US Marine lifted him over the fence to the embassy. He won numerous awards and was the SF bureau chief for ABC.
Jobs in his real office, with awesome Nightline titles.21/ Now Steve Jobs live. This is where he repeated bicycle of the mind to questions about personal computers from Ted Koppel. The segment kicked off with a nod to the computer problems with STS, but broadened to computers in society.
22/ Jobs points out that the shuttle only proves the importance of computers — “the computers were as important as the thrusters” when asked about the fragility/reliance on computers.
“Computers amplified a human ability.” — This was a consistent theme in all of the press Jobs did. Amplifying humans is a tool-centric view of computing. BillG was a huge fan of Thomas Kuhn (and loved the word paradigm) in discussing how PC software would evolve.
23/ Jobs then goes on to discuss the democratization of computing. When asked about being too dependent, he describes the difference between centralized computing and the PC. Then he is back to SciAm and the Condor. PCs free humans to be creative and work at conceptual level.
Cover of Scientific American, March 1973. From PDF of magazine.
24/ Then a second guest, David Burnham, an award winning journalist (his stories led to “Serpico” and “Silkwood”!). He is very skeptical of computers.
This is how Nightline worked, and almost always featured New York or DC-based journalists.
Burnham was a super famous and award-winning journalist at the time. Serpico was Academy Award nominee (Pacino in acting, and screenplay). Similarly Silkwood was critically acclaimed. Both dealt with corruption and trust issues with government entrusted to protect us, a theme of his reporting career.
25/ Burnham picks up on Jobs line of computers amplifying humans “Computers were used by the Census Bureau to locate Japanese Americans for internment.” (true and horrible)
26/ At 8:50 Koppel then ponders if computers are inherently bad or it is people using them. Jobs pivots to computers in schools — 97% of students in Minnesota are gaining computer literacy in school.
In reality, Koppel cites the NRA line “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” which is rather jarring to hear today (especially after this week). The role of accountability when tools are abused or misused is still very much front and center, especially with developments such as facial recognition, privacy concerns, and so on.
27/ Burham discusses the need for public awareness. He subsequently wrote the book “The Rise of the Computer State” the threat to our privacy, legal procedures, and the democratic process, providing clear evidence of the present and probable dangers of computer technology.
This book was highly regarded and very much like the many thought pieces we see today over privacy, social networks, and democracy. The forward was by Walter Cronkite lending gravitas to the work. It reflects great concerns that were expressed in many books about the growing risk of government databases and invasion into personal lives.
Rise of the Computer State, by David Burnham
I came across this advertisement from IBM that ran at this time as well, discussing the commitment IBM had to privacy. In the 1960s IBM became the first company to permit employees access to their personnel files. This seemed initiated by some transgression I could not find and pertains to privacy of employees, not privacy of computers and IBM customers.
IBM advertisement about privacy from 1980.
28/ These all came together in a Jobs authored essay in July 1981 in a magazine called “COMPUTERS and PEOPLE” which was the OG computer mag, started in *1951* devoted to the diversity of hardware and appreciation for computers in society.
“When We Invented the Personal Computer…” article by Steve Jobs in COMPUTERS and PEOPLE magazing July 1981.
29/ The essay “When We Invented the Personal Computer…” starts with the bicycle quote. It is based on an interview and subsequent full page ads. Was it the first video or the Nightline segment I can’t discern. The essay had 8 questions:
- What is a personal computer?
- What is the difference between a personal computer and other computers?
- How does the personal computer increase productivity on an individual level?
- What are those 150,000 people doing with the Apples they have bought?
- What are people going to use Apples for, ten years from now?
- How is Apple Computer Inc. carrying on a Silicon Valley tradition?
- Has Apple’s entrepreneurial spirit permeated other aspects of the personal computer industry?
- How is Apple going to maintain its leadership in the industry?
8 questions from the article, above.
30/ What is the difference between a PC and other computers? Amazingly, even in 1981 he was on the verge of making the “PCs are trucks” analogy. He likens mainframes to trains and PCs to Volkswagens 💻 v 🚗 (or 🚚)
2. What is the key difference between computers?
31/ How does a PC increase productivity? Jobs uses another early metaphor “Computers are tools, not toys.” Why does he say this? Because businesses were calling them toys! Why? Because people talked about games, storing recipes, and so on.
3. How does the personal computer increase productivity on an individual level.
32/ What about 10 years from now? Apple loved EDU (Mac launched w/ universities in 1984). He cites what is going on in Minnesota. Then of course my favorite, PCs are in 1 of 100 households and by end of 80’s it will be 1 in 10 (it was 15% and 21.5M PCs sold, not yet every home).
Doubling every year!
Here is a chart from public source data comparing Total PCs, IBM PC, and Apple PCs from 1976–1989. I stopped at 1989 because of the recession and because that was the year Windows 3.0 came out and really changed everything. Numbers are in 000’s.
33/ What about the role of Apple with entrepreneurs? Jobs discusses the role of the software platform and economics available all on the modest capital investment of less than $5000 for an Apple ][.
The economics of making software for a standard platform. This is something BillG and Jobs agreed on. Recall BillGs famous letter to hobbyists.
34/ Finally, how will apple maintain its leadership? Here again we can see the modern apple — “Apple’s continuing success and leadership position will result from innovation, not duplication. Innovation in products, marketing, as well as in distribution.” Love the 4 P’s in use 🙌
Apple leadership via the 4 P’s.
35/ And we see the long term view of ease of use and using the power of the computer to make things easier to use. No one was really saying that yet in any deep way. Power was the vocabulary in vogue.
36/ The publisher / editor of COMPUTERS and PEOPLE puts an awesome note at the end, reminding readers that more than 100 computer dealers offer PCs and service. He was a hard core believer in diversity of computer systems for micros—there was a general fear of another dominant IBM in the new space of micros. Micros equated with freedom from tyranny of big. Already 30 years of publishing this magazine.
37/ So that was a tour through the “Bicycle of the mind”. I learned a lot and hope this was interesting. // END
PS/ Communications of the ACM had a detailed overview of the Space Shuttle computer systems in 1984 by Spector & Gifford. I loved this article being from Florida and a CS major. We talked about it in OS class. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/d065/4a9cea75ad4e34eed797003e02d854624c7e.pdf
Article from CACM on space shuttle computer systems.
Stewart Brand documentary interview. (c. 1986?)
For this post all 4 pages of the article are reproduced here.
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