Heart Warming Holiday Tale For Hackers

I recently stumbled across Ron Avitzur’s story of the the development of Graphing Calculator, the little application that makes complex math easy to visualize. If there was a collection of essays titled “Chicken Soup For The Silicon Valley Soul,” this would be included.

Pacific Tech’s Graphing Calculator has a long history. I began the work in 1985 while in school. That became Milo, and later became part of FrameMaker. Over the last twenty years, many people have contributed to it. Graphing Calculator 1.0, which Apple bundled with the original PowerPC computers, originated under unique circumstances.

I used to be a contractor for Apple, working on a secret project. Unfortunately, the computer we were building never saw the light of day. The project was so plagued by politics and ego that when the engineers requested technical oversight, our manager hired a psychologist instead. In August 1993, the project was canceled. A year of my work evaporated, my contract ended, and I was unemployed.

I was frustrated by all the wasted effort, so I decided to uncancel my small part of the project. I had been paid to do a job, and I wanted to finish it. My electronic badge still opened Apple’s doors, so I just kept showing up.

The story covers those six months starting in August 1993. The full story is a quick read, and especially touching for the hacker on winter holiday.

I view the events as an experiment in subverting power structures. I had none of the traditional power over others that is inherent to the structure of corporations and bureaucracies. I had neither budget nor headcount. I answered to no one, and no one had to do anything I asked. Dozens of people collaborated spontaneously, motivated by loyalty, friendship, or the love of craftsmanship. We were hackers, creating something for the sheer joy of making it work.

At the end of Avitzur’s tale, he mentions a story about his work on the front page of the New York Times business section of March 11, 1994. The article was about the release of PowerPC-based Macs, but I’ve found the relevant lines and posted them here:

Mr. Avitzur, with two colleagues — Greg Robbins and Steve Newman — has written a new kind of calculator software that will be included with each of the new Power Macintoshes. The program permits the user to type an algebraic equation in one window and instantly see it rendered as an undulating three-dimensional graph in another window.

This 3D, movie-like animation is possible because the computer is powerful enough to perform the hundreds of thousand of calculations needed to recompute the surface dozens of times a second.

For Mr. Avitzur, who is dedicated to designing more powerful software for mathematical educators, the program proves how computing muscle can simplify programs.

“It changes the way we design software entirely,” he said. “Things that took minutes or hours can now be done many times a second. The processing power lets you do things directly and interactively.”

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