Who Invented the Computer? A Bunch of Writers
Who Invented the Computer? This is the forty-second installment in our ongoing series.
Today almost all information pertaining to computers is available online. With just a few clicks, you can learn how to build, repair, and network computers. But it wasn't always that way.
Many people under the age of 30 have forgotten (or never knew) that a great deal of information about advancements in technology used to be shared through newspapers, catalogs, and magazines. Print publications especially played a major role in the development of personal computers, as subscribers eagerly awaited each monthly issue and read and reread articles about new developments in computing.
During that long-ago-age when print was king, two publications stood out in the field of micro and personal computing. They were the leaders in disseminating the latest developments among computer aficionados.
In 1974, in Peterborough, N.H., Wayne Green and his ex-wife Virginia Londner Green were busy writing, editing and publishing 73, a magazine for amateur radio buffs. Most articles in the publication dealt with aspects of radio functions, but occasionally pieces about computers were included.
The Greens were surprised at the popularity of computer-related articles, as many readers wrote letters asking for more such pieces. Learning of the increasing fascination with the Altair 8800, the Greens decided the time was ripe for a magazine targeting fans of microcomputing.
Carl Helmers, the self-publisher of a small monthly newsletter called the "Experimenter's Computer System" (ECS) was recruited to be the editor of the new magazine. Using ECS's mailing list of 400 subscribers, in September 1975, the trio published Issue No. 1 of Byte, the first publication dedicated to personal computing.
Byte was an immediate hit with readers. The magazine included guest writers covering microcomputer-related topics. Articles in the first issue were "Assembling Your Assembler," "How to Build a Graphics Display," and "Which Microprocessor for You," among others.
In addition to subscribers, Byte also relied on advertising with great success. Microsoft's first advertisement appeared in an early issue. Distinctive and entertaining covers drawn by artist Robert Tinney helped give Byte a recognizable image. Tinney's art would grace the cover of 100 issues and in the process become the "consistent artistic concept for the computer world."
Byte was sold to McGraw-Hill in 1979. The new owner moved the magazine's focus away from "how-to-do-it-yourself" articles to primarily product reviews about "what it does" and "how it works."
Despite competing magazines, Byte remained the leading publication for personal computing. During the 1980s, the subscriber base peaked at just under 500,000. The magazine also continued growing in physical size, averaging 543 pages per issue, with more than half of those pages reserved for advertisements.
With the advent of the internet, Byte's ad revenue and subscriber base dropped off dramatically. In an attempt to revive its popularity, the magazine was sold to CMP Media in May 1998. Die-hard fans hoped for a continuation of the magazine. Unfortunately, the reprieve was short lived — Byte's new owners cancelled the publication in July, after just two issues.
Dr. Dobb's Journal
In 1975, engineer Bob Albrecht, a member of the Homebrew Computer Club, and computer consultant Dennis Allison fulfilled their mutual desire to spread the idea of programming to others by publishing the first issue of People's Computer Company (PCC), a quarterly mimeographed newsletter dedicated solely to programming.
The duo originally planned for PCC to run for just three issues. Articles in these issues, written primarily by Allison, focused on a previous creation of his, "Tiny Basic," a group of dialects of the BASIC programming language that required a mere three kilobytes of memory.
The final page of issue number three encouraged other computer hobbyists who had had success implementing Tiny Basic to send in copies of their programs. There was also a written promise to mail copies of all the implementations to anyone who sent in a stamped, self-addressed envelope.
Readers who received copies of other implementations were delighted and immediately began a letter writing campaign asking for PCC to become an ongoing publication focused on software for microcomputers.
Albrecht and Allison liked the idea and soon hired an editor, Jim C. Warren, who changed the name of the newsletter to Dr. Dobb's Journal of Computer Calisthenics and Orthodontia —his way of paying homage to the difficulties of "jumping through hoops" and "pulling teeth" to create successful programs. "Dobb's" was a contraction of Allison's and Albrecht's first-names.
In an ode to the expensive cost of memory and the idea that programmers needed to use as little memory as possible, Warren added the humorous subtitle, "Running Light Without Overbyte."
Interest in the Dr. Dobb's Journal grew rapidly. By 1977 it was published monthly. Publication costs were kept low because so many readers submitted content for free — their only desire was to share their ideas and opinions. A number of original contributors would go on to prominent careers in the personal computer industry, including Jef Raskin and Steve Wozniak of Apple fame.
For the first two years, Dr. Dobb's covers were spartan, consisting of a masthead, the issue number, and little else. Still, readers enjoyed the magazine, especially as articles began covering the social uses and benefits of computers and other groundbreaking features of personal computing such as speech synthesis and music systems.
As Dr. Dobb's increased in popularity it gained a following outside the United States with fans in foreign countries submitting articles of their own. The magazine also became more professional looking. The name was shortened to Dr. Dobb's Journal, and then later inflated to Dr. Dobb's Journal of Software Tools.
As with so many print publications, the internet directly led to a decrease in print subscribers. By 1995, Dr. Dobb's was no longer monthly and became an online publication. It would limp along until December 2014, when editor-in-chief, Andrew Binstock finally pulled the plug ending a successful run of nearly 40 years.
Throughout history, revolutionary ideas have always come in printed form. The "Magna Carta," in 1215, forced King John to limit the scope of royal powers; Martin Luther's "95 Theses" kicked off the Protestant Reformation, and Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson's "Declaration of Independence" set the United States on the path to becoming a nation.
To that list we can add Byte and Dr. Dobb's Journal. While neither publication is as widely known as those towering historic documents, each provided a much needed forum for discussion and the sharing of ideas and advancements about microcomputing.
There is no doubt that the world-changing revolution in personal computing would still have occurred without these two publications, but it's also quite likely that it would have been much slower in coming.