Happy Anniversaries

by Alan Zisman (c) 2001. First published in Vancouver Computes, July 2001

This year, we can celebrate several significant anniversaries in computing.

For instance, May 17th was, according to some accounts, the tenth anniversary of the World Wide Web.

Yes most of us know that the Internet had been around for quite a while by then, and Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the Web, had been kicking the concept around since 1989. But May 17th, 1991 saw the first public roll-out of Berners-Lee?s Web server and client software.

His presentation, first shown at the Swiss CERN physics research establishment, can still be viewed on the Web, at: http://www.w3.org/Talks/C5_17_May_91.html. Unfortunately, the bulk of the site consists of PS postscript-formatted files, making it hard for most of us to actually read it, but the conclusion states:

?You should remember the philosophy that academic information is for all, and it is our duty to make information available?.

The Web was born as a forum for making information freely available. As we hear about the difficulties of companies to make a fortune from the Web, it?s important to remember that the Web was not created as a money-making venture. Tim Berners-Lee, in creating the Web, never became a dot-com gazillionaire.

Two of our other anniversaries, however, turned into real money-makers.

August marks the twentieth anniversary of the IBM Personal Computer.

Yes, there had been personal computers before that first IBM-PC; some people consider the first personal computer the MITS Altair, whose 1975 debut is perhaps best documented in Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine?s classic book, ?Fire in the Valley?. And the years between the Altair and IBM?s entry into the market saw an explosion of personal computers, from companies ranging from Commodore and Apple to little firms that are barely remembered today.

Nevertheless, computer-giant IBM?s entry into the personal computer market changed everything, giving the concept a new respectability and entry into the halls of big business. In fact, ever since, the term ?PC? has been used to refer to the large number of products, under an uncountable number of brand names, that can be seen to descend from that original IBM PC. You can find a summary of the IBM PC?s release online at: http://www.dg.com/about/html/ibm_pc.html.

The unprecedented demand for that first IBM PC made more money for IBM than it had imagined. It also established Microsoft, providers of the PC?s operating system, DOS. Microsoft had been one of the first micro-computer software companies, with Bill Gates and Paul Allen getting their start providing the BASIC programming language for the pioneering Altair and other first-generation micro-computers. And a whole hardware and software industry followed on the heels of IBM and Microsoft.

We?re not done, yet. Tenth anniversary, twentieth anniversary, nothing.

It?s also the thirtieth anniversary of two biggies: 1971 gave us the invention, by Intel?s Ted Hoff of the first microprocessor. By today?s standards, it wasn?t much?the original Intel 4004 was a 4-bit chip with 2300 transistors and was marketed for electronic calculators. Still, that made it as powerful as the original ENIAC which used 18,000 vacuum tubes and took up a whole room. By the end of the year, Intel was advertising it as  ?a micro-programmable computer on a chip?.

Just for comparison, the Pentium 4 packs in some 42 million transistors. And the 4004 ran at 108 khz, some 15,000 times slower than a 1.7 GHz. Still, the 4004 was enough to spur the development, by Gary Kildall, of the PL/M programming language and CP/M operating systems which, along with Intel?s next generation 8008 CPU formed much of the software basis for that first generation of micro-computers. And its descendant, Intel?s 8088 processor powered that first IBM PC.

And 1971 also saw the sending of the first e-mail message, by Ray Tomlinson, credited with also being the first to use the ?@? sign to separate the user?s name from the computer?s name. For more on Tomlinson and his invention, check: http://web.mit.edu/afs/athena.mit.edu/org/g/giving/spectrum/spring00/email.html

According to the Rose Floral Company?s Wedding Anniversary Symbols Web page (http://www.rosefloral.com/wedding.htm), the 10th anniversary is traditionally symbolized by tin, the 20th by china, and the 30th by pearls. The site, however, points out that modern gift-giving centers around platinum for 20, and diamonds for both 10 and 30.

Out of our four anniversaries, we might imagine that two, IBM and Intel, can afford to celebrate with their choice of platinum or diamonds.

Neither Tim Berners-Lee not Ray Tomlinson, however, made a fortune from their firsts.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan