Archive for the ‘High Tech History’ Category

On January 22, 1984, the famous “1984” television commercial introducing the Macintosh personal computer ran during the third quarter of the Super Bowl.  Many people think that this is the only time it ever ran.  But, it was also run by the Chiat/Day, the ad agency that created it, on December 31, 1983 right before the 12:00 midnight sign-off on KMVT in Twin Falls, Idaho, so that it could qualify for the 1983 advertising awards. The ad was so successful, that it never really needed to be run again as the media coverage it got generated a lot of free airtime.  And, people are still talking about it 30 years later.

The ad is based on the book, “1984” by George Orwell which introduced the concept of “Big Brother”.  The ad refers to IBM as “Big Brother” and the Apple Macintosh computer as the individual challenging a society of people who don’t behave as individuals.  Interestingly, the estate of George Orwell and the television rights holder to the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four considered the commercial to be a copyright infringement and sent a cease-and-desist letter to Apple and Chiat/Day after the ad ran which generated even more publicity.



Here’s Director Ridley Scott discussing the making of the famous 1984 Macintosh commercial.  [This is excerpted from an Apple promotional video.]



The “1984” ad was shown at the 20th anniversary celebration of the Macintosh in 2004  There was also an updated version of it created for the iPod launch.  Was it one of the best ads ever?  That’s up for debate.  But, as a marketer, I’d give it an award for one of the top 10 product launches ever.

— Carole Gunst


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NIST-Logo_5The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is one of the nation’s oldest physical science laboratories in existence.  The United States Congress established the agency in 1901 as the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) because, at the time, the U.S. had a second-rate measurement infrastructure that lagged behind the capabilities of other countries.  For some reason, the word “national” was dropped from the name in 1903 and added back in 1934. In 1988, the agency name became the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST.

NIST and High Tech History

According to the NIST website, “Before air conditioning, airplanes, and plastics were invented, and before science was changed forever by Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) began laying the technical foundation for the world’s most prosperous nation.  At that time, the United States had few, if any, authoritative national standards for any quantities or products.  It was difficult for Americans to conduct fair transactions or get parts to fit together properly. Construction materials were of uneven quality, and household products were unreliable. Few Americans worked as scientists, because most scientific work was based overseas.”

NIST Centenial photosWhen World War II began, science and technology rose in importance and so did NIST who was drawn into the new field of electronics.  NIST weapons research led to a contractor’s development of printed circuits, which substituted printed wiring, resistors, and coils for the conventional discrete components in electronic devices. This technology contributed to a new field of electronic miniaturization for which the Institute provided useful engineering data and components.

An automated electronic computing project was established at NIST in 1946, about the time that the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Automatic Computer (ENIAC), the first all-purpose electronic computer, began operating at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1948, the Air Force financed NIST to design and construct the Standards Eastern Automatic Computer (SEAC.)  The computer went into operation in May 1950 using a combination of vacuum tubes and solid-state diode logic.

About the same time, the Standards Western Automatic Computer, was built at the Los Angeles office of NIST and was used for research there.  In 1954, a mobile version, DYSEC,  (it was actually housed in a truck and might just be the first portable computer) went into operation.  NIST staff members also developed a mathematical algorithm, used to solve very large systems of linear equations, that nearly 50 years later would be named one of the top 10 algorithms of the century by a computing trade journal.

NIST Today

Today, NIST is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Its official mission is “to promote U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life.”

NIST is involved with the following areas of technology:

Interested in learning more?  NIST provides many educational activities and is open for tours if you’re in Gaithersburg, MD or Boulder, CO.

— Carole Gunst

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Have you ever owned a computer that made you want to pull your hair out? Wondering if your computer would be on the top 10 list of worst computers of all time? You might be in luck. Chassis Plans, a rugged computer manufacturer, has created this interesting infographic outlining some of the worst computers of all time. From the Commodore VIC 20 to the Netbook, this visual takes you through some of the most loathed computers and the features that drove their owners mad. Name a computer problem and one of these computers probably had it. From slow processor speeds to computers that would turn on in the middle of the night to computers that would melt discs, the problems go on and on. Surprisingly some of these computers, despite their problems set records like “the first commercial computer to be used in space” or “the first personal computer to sell more than one million units.”

The Worst Computers of All Time [Infographic]

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Pi Day is an annual celebration that takes place on March 14th (3/14) — since 3, 1 and 4 are the three most significant digits of π in the decimal form — around the world.  The first official celebration of Pi Day was organized by physicist, Larry Shaw, in 1988with staff and public marching around one of its circular spaces, then consuming fruit pies. In 2009, the United States House of Representatives supported the designation of Pi Day.

What is Pi?


Pi (Greek letter “π”) is the symbol used in mathematics to represent a constant — the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter — which is approximately 3.14159.  It has been represented by the Greek letter “π” since the mid-18th century, though it is also sometimes written as pi.  The calculation of π was revolutionized by the development of infinite series techniques in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Infinite series allowed mathematicians to compute π with much greater precision than Archimedes and others who used geometrical techniques.   Although infinite series were exploited for π most notably by European mathematicians such as James Gregory and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the approach was first discovered in India sometime between 1400 and 1500 AD.  

How is Pi Day Celebrated?

My office celebrated Pi Day today by holding a pie contest.  Over 25 employees and contractors each brought in a pie and all staff was called down to the cafeteria to have a slice.

  • The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has often mailed its application decision letters to prospective students for delivery on Pi Day.  Starting in 2012, MIT has announced it will post those decisions (privately) online on Pi Day at exactly 6:28 pm, which they have called “Tau Time”, to honor the rival numbers Pi and Tau equally.
  • The town of Princeton, New Jersey (and home to Princeton University,) hosts numerous events in a combined celebration of Pi Day and Albert Einstein’s birthday, which is also March 14.  Einstein lived in Princeton for more than twenty years while working at the Institute for Advanced Study. In addition to pie eating and recitation contests, there is an annual Einstein look-alike contest.
  • Google had it’s own Pi Day doodle posted on the site in 2010.
  • National Public Radio created a Pi Day rap video in 2010.

In case you missed the celebration, mark you calendar now for Pi Approximation Day on July 22 (or 22/7 in day/month date format), since the fraction 227 is a common approximation of π.  Maybe you can share a fraction of a pie with a friend.

— Carole Gunst

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Steve Jobs, 1955-2011

Regarded by many as one of the greatest commencement addresses in U.S. history, by someone who admittedly never graduated from college himself. At just over 15 minutes in length, Steve Jobs neatly, yet forcefully encapsulates his family history, professional history, and general philosophy of life. It could easily be boiled down to a mere two word phrase: “Don’t settle.”

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life … remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose … there is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Farewell, Steve Jobs. One of history’s giants who made this world dramatically better because he had lived.

-Chris Hartman

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[Note to readers: This is a guest post that originally appeared on the Blogineering blog.  Special thanks to Dorothy Shaw for calling it to our attention.]

Many of the greatest advancements in history have come about as the direct result of those working as engineers. Engineers provide us with practical solutions for a host of problems, as well as advance practical science and technology. They take theories and ideas, and often turn them into working principles and products that better our lives. From the compound pulley system invented by the great Greek engineer Archimedes, to the tall buildings and air conditioned comfort we enjoy today, engineers have been at the forefront of our technological advancement.

While there have been many notable engineers throughout history, there are some whose inventions and insights have been exceptionally useful. From engineering students tinkering to improve old designs, to the engineers who have discovered sweeping laws that affect the way we view the scientific world, here are 20 of the most notable engineers:

  1. Archimedes of Syracuse: No discussion of notable engineers can leave out Archimedes of Syracuse. No matter how you might quarrel with other additions on any list of great engineers, Archimedes must be on the list. He was a keen observer and inventor, developing engineering principles of fluid displacement, as well as inventing the compound pulley — one of the most important inventions in all of history.
  2. Francis Bacon: The scientific method owes its existence to Sir Francis Bacon. A true Renaissance man, Bacon was also a philosopher, statesman and lawyer in addition to being a scientist. He died in the name of science, as he fell victim to pneumonia during one of his experiments as he studied the effects of freezing meat.
  3. Daniel Bernoulli: Perhaps you’ve heard of the Bernoulli Principle? This is the principle of fluid dynamics that is used in the construction of aircraft to determine air speed. It was discovered by Daniel Bernoulli, son of a renowned mathematician. Bernoulli also discovered how to measure blood pressure, and was well known for his work on the Conservation of Energy.
  4. John Logie Baird: The Scottish engineer John Logie Baird invented a mechanical television. While Philo T. Farnsworth would be credited later with developing the dissector tube that made electronic TV possible, Baird is credited with providing the first televised objects in motion, and the first televised human face, as well as demonstrating color television in 1928.
  5. Henry Bessemer: One of the most significant building advancements was the production of inexpensive steel. And the engineer who created the process for mass-producing steel was Henry Bessemer. Bessemer had been working on a process similar to American William Kelly’s process, and he bought the patent from Kelly. Today, steel is still made using process based on Bessemer’s method.
  6. Gustave Eiffel: The Eiffel Tower in Paris, France was named after someone; that someone was Gustave Eiffel. This French civil engineer contributed to structural architecture, and enhanced metal construction of bridges.
  7. John Ambrose FlemingSir John Ambrose Fleming is the inventor of the first vacuum tube. His engineering feat is known as the precursor to electronics — even though the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated his patent.
  8. Edwin Armstrong: The American engineer Edwin Armstrong is know for his innovation of frequency modulation (used in FM radio and for other purposes). He was also known for superheterodyning and regeneration.
  9. Seymour Cray: In today’s computer dominated society, it is important to pay homage to Seymour Cray, the engineer believed to be the founder of supercomputing, and the first to build a device making use of functional parallelism architecture.
  10. Wernher von Braun: One of the most important rocket developers, especially of rockets for the space exploration effort, was Wernher von Braun. Initially working for the Nazis, developing the V-2 ballistic missile, von Braun later surrendered to the Americans — along with 500 rocket scientists — and came to work in the U.S.
  11. Robert Goddard: Even though the New York Times panned Robert Goddard’s theories of travel to the moon by rocket, he had the last laugh. He built the first liquid-fueled rocket, and it has been a source of technological advancement for decades.
  12. Arthur Casagrande: One of the greatest contributors to dam building and other earth construction was engineer Arthur Casagrande, a pioneer in soil mechanics.
  13. Henry Darcy: The modern style Pitot tube was invented by Henry Darcy, an engineer who developed a law describing flow in porous media. Today, Darcy’s achievements can be seen in hydrology and petroleum engineering.
  14. Wendell Bollman: When you see truss bridges spanning great lengths, you can thank Wendell Bollman, a self-taught civil engineer. His designs for ferry bridges and other truss bridges have influenced us for decades, even though there is only one remaining “Bollman truss” bridge still in existence.
  15. Thomas Brassey: This civil engineer is notable for his prolific railroad building. Thomas Brassey was the premier contractor for railroading building throughout Europe, and is also responsible for Canada’s Grand Trunk Railway.
  16. George Stephenson: English civil engineer George Stephenson built the first public railway in the world that made use of steam locomotives. He was also friends with Thomas Brassey, and encouraged him to contract to build railways. The world’s standard railway gauge is the Stephenson gauge, named after the man who developed it.
  17. Willis Carrier: Do you enjoy air conditioning in the summer? If so, you can thank Willis Carrier. Carrier’s first air conditioning success came only a year after he earned his Masters in Engineering from Cornell. And the rest of us have benefitted every since.
  18. Burt Rutan: One of the most influential aerospace engineers is Burt Rutan, whose innovative designs are prominent in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. He is responsible for SpaceShipOne, the first private rocket plane to put a person in space, and for the first airplane to make it around the world without needing to refuel.
  19. Fazlur Khan: Considered to be central to the “Second Chicago School” of architectural design, Fazlur Khan is largely responsible for inspiring some of the most interesting structural engineering  feats of the latter half of the 20th Century, changing skyscraper construction.
  20. Judith Resnik: Focus on the tragic Challenger explosion often centers around teacher Christa McAuliffe. However, Judith Resnik, a NASA engineer, also perished in the flight. She had worked on orbiter projects, and influenced design procedures related to special integrated circuitry.

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Courtesy, thehackernews.com

There was a time when “hackers” were seen as indispensable, if not plodding and exacting foot soldiers in the arcane world of computer programming. Certainly, many in their own ranks saw themselves that way. Their almost tunnel-visioned fascination with code, debugging and programming generally bordered on the obsessive. A previous post I wrote here on Nathan Ensmenger’s book The Computer Boys Take Over, included the opinion of one management consultant, Herbert Grosch (himself a former programmer) who referred to them as the “Cosa Nostra” of the computer industry for their ungovernable yet highly intellectual and analytical natures.

Grace Hopper, who I’ve also written about here on High Tech History, was an early programmer (many of earliest of the profession were women) who was devoted to honorable goals. In her case, it was helping to win World War II at Harvard’s computer lab under the leadership of Howard Aiken – which proved invaluable to the U.S. naval effort in the field of ballistics. The idea of hacking for illicit or otherwise mischievous objectives would have been unthinkable at the time.

Now, fast-forward fifty years and you have the curious case of Kevin Mitnick, a brilliant yet devious programmer who almost single-handedly reversed the connotation of “hacker” from relatively unknown, yet positive  – to malicious, dangerous and, at its worst, criminal. He’s now attempting to set the record straight in a new book, Ghost in the Wires, which he co-wrote with technology writer William L. Simon. Mitnick and Simon had collaborated on a previous book, The Art of Deception: Controlling the Human Element of Security (2003), which also has significant bearing on his current book. Mitnick offers several examples of where he was able to breach the security of a company through the unwitting assistance of its own personnel. Mitnick euphemistically refers to this as “social engineering.” As Mitnick himself claimed, “People, as I had learned at a very young age, are just too trusting.”

But what sets Mitnick apart from more diabolical “hackers” is that he never used the information he acquired for financial or other gain. He repeatedly asserts he simply did what he did because he could. In other words, it was the challenge rather than the information he ultimately gained access to. This is a point of intersection between himself and Apple, Inc. co-founder Steve Wozniak, who in his youth likewise hacked the local phone company out of an intense curiosity in its switches and circuits. Called “phone phreaking,” this procedure involved the manipulation of telephones and related infrastructure, as well as telephone company employees themselves. Wozniak, who is friendly with Mitnick and has written introductions for both of Mitnick’s books, credits him with finally getting the previously reclusive Wozniak out on the lecture circuit.

Kevin Mitnick's "Wanted" poster issued by U.S. Marshals, 1992. Flickr.com

Such relatively innocuous stunts led eventually to Mitnick’s pilfering of proprietary code to hack into companies like Sun Microsystems and Novell – as well as eavesdropping on the National Security Agency’s telephone calls. As authorities closed in on him, he went on the run until he was caught in February, 1995 and subsequently imprisoned (he was released in 2000 and has since formed his own company, Mitnick Security Consulting, LLC., which advises businesses on computer security strategies).

Mitnick also uses much of his book to debunk some of the more incredible rumors manufactured by authorities about the nefarious extent of his activities – such as his ability to “whistle into a telephone and launch a nuclear missile from NORAD.” He also asserts that he ignored the credit card numbers and other financial information he routinely encountered in his pursuit of code – the hacker’s manna.

Kevin Mitnick. Courtesy, pocketberry.com

But all told, Mitnick, an equally brilliant and cheeky sort, relished invading the intricacy of technology and bending both it and its human element to his will. As one savvy reviewer humorously noted in his appraisal of The Art of Deception: “After Mitnick’s first dozen examples [of security breaches], anyone responsible for organizational security is going to lose the will to live.” But Mitnick’s chief defense, as he claimed he told the former Wall Street insider-trader Ivan Boesky when they were both in prison together, was that “I didn’t do it for the money; I did it for the entertainment.” And the record appears to confirm this. For this and other reasons, Ghost in the Wires is a valuable book that computer enthusiasts and historians alike can enjoy – combining both humor and insight as it delves into a comparatively innocent period of computer science – one that existed before hacking did truly turn malicious and financially motivated.

-Chris Hartman

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