Stephen D. WIlliams sdw at
Sat Sep 20 12:25:22 PDT 2003

Cool.  Tell us more.

I certainly should have moved from Ohio to the West coast a long long 
time ago, although I don't mind the East coast/DC area at the moment.

I was a little too young to get in on a lot of this fun which is both 
good and bad.  Now it is so easy to learn a huge amount, free via Linux, 
GNU, the Internet, etc.  On the other hand, probably hard to sort 
through the noise and know what to concentrate on.

I'm still looking for a cheap double-sided 8" floppy drive if anyone has 
one laying around.  ;-)


Jeff Barr wrote:

>> From: Gregory Alan Bolcer <gbolcer at>
>> I read the history of VI last week after
>> Joy left Sun and the history of IRC this morning
>> after the kookaid post.
>> "9600 baud is way faster than you can read."[1]
> Ok, time for me to be the old guy here.
> First computer I ever saw was some kind of
> mainframe which printed out Snoopy posters on
> a line printer. This was in 5th grade, and I
> was hooked, even if I didn't know what was
> what at that point.
> Summer after 6th grade, took a digital logic
> class in summer school (yes, that was my idea
> of fun). Spent all summer building a digital
> tachometer out of discrete TTL chips, ended
> up letting all of the magic smoke out after
> 2 months of work.
> 7th grade (Framingham, Mass) all of the Junior
> Highs had ASR-33's hooked up to a PDP-8 at
> the High School. Each class got 2 weeks of
> instruction. For 9 days out of those two
> weeks I was totally mystified. Everyone was
> comprehending BASIC except me. Even the girls
> got it :-). I kept trying to apply what I had
> learned in the logic class, somehow imagining
> a bunch of gates which would recognize each
> discrete statement (as a whole). The teacher
> would always write for loops in the same way:
>     FOR I = 1 TO 10
> I could imagine some logic that would match
> this exact thing. Last day of class, he
> finally made a slight change:
>     FOR J = 1 TO 20
> Wham, the light bulb went on, big-time. It was
> suddenly clear that this was all general-
> purpose.
> After that they couldn't keep me off of the
> computer (this would later prove detrimental to
> my education). The teacher (Mr. Cliff Zeolla)
> allowed me as much access as I wanted. Thanks,
> Cliff! This would have been around 1972. Computer
> books were in short supply. Cliff drove me and
> a friend into Boston one Saturday so that we
> could find some more books. I bought some DEC
> programming handbooks which I still have to
> this day.
> Got into high school, was allowed to skip out
> on math class to program on some sort of Wang
> Basic box. Figured out the relationship between
> EXP() and LOG() and the teacher figured out
> that I knew all of the math that would be taught
> that year. Big mistake, which took me years
> to undo.
> We moved to Washington State, and I started taking
> some cool electronics classes at the Pacific
> Science Center. I think it was called the
> Can-Do Workshop. One day a guy came by and
> said that he wanted to start a computer club.
> This was Bob Wallace, later to go on to write
> the first PASCAL compiler for Microsoft, the
> PC-Write word processor, and to invent the
> concept of shareware. The club was named the
> Northwest Computer Club, and we had a really
> good time. Bill Gates was once a guest speaker,
> as was Dr. Robert Suding. Bob died an untimely
> death earlier this year.
> While at the Science Center, a guy came by with
> the exciting news that Seattle would soon get
> a computer store of its very own. This must have
> been 1975, at the time of the Altair's announcement.
> At the age of 15 I somehow got hired at that
> store as the janitor, with the agreement that I
> could use the computers if I kept the store clean.
> That job duty lasted 1 week, until I made my
> first sale of an Altair or IMSAI. Learned to
> treat every potential customer the same,
> regardless of how they were dressed or spoke. Good
> lesson for a 15-year old. Highlights of that
> time included showing Bill Gates that the Compucolor
> machines had a ripped off copy of his code,
> meeting Gary Kildall, and working with Bob
> Wallace, Tim Paterson (soon to gain fame as
> the author of MS-DOS), and Mike Courtney (who
> had the bad habit of working to the point of
> physical exhaustion and then falling asleep
> in his chair). We would gently roll Mike into
> an office and let him sleep for a day or so
> to recover. Earned minimum wage, which was then
> about $2/hour.
> Bought an Altair of my own that year, along
> with a Cromemco Dazzler. Wrote a lot of 8080
> assembler code and disassembled NorthStar
> BASIC to learn how it worked.
> Age 17, moved to Maryland with my family. Got
> another computer store job (The Retail
> Computer Store, in Rockville, Maryland). Did
> code, sales, and support. Got addicted to
> the Alpha Micro system, a very early 16-bit
> PDP-11 clone. Disassembled Altair Disk (12K)
> BASIC to learn how it worked.
> Started at community college, and took a huge
> step back in time. Whoa, punched cards! Learned
> all about batch and quickly decided that PL/I
> was THE language to know. Retrieved OS/370 builds
> from the trash cans and studied them. Became
> intrigued by the way our PL/C compiler (a
> PL/I compiler written at Cornell. Featured
> very fast compilation and the ability to fix
> almost any random input into a valid program). Started
> pushing random text and cards with COBOL on them
> to learn more. Went to the CS library at the
> University of Maryland to read up on this, and
> learned about compilers.
> First year of college, got an awesome job, with
> an amazing mentor by the name of Steve Polyak.
> Steve taught me how to program in 6502 assembler,
> then he made me write a new assembler from scratch.
> I learned about hashing and made this assembler
> blazingly fast. Got a raise after I simulated
> the proposed hash function at school (using
> FORTRAN) and found lots of collisions when used
> on the 6502 opcode set. We took some Ohio Scientific
> machines and wrote a travel agency automation
> package named TARA. In 48K of RAM we ran three
> users on ADM-3A terminals. Steve wrote the OS
> and we both wrote the apps (he more than I). We had
> some very flakey memory, which was causing our
> double-entry accounting system to go out of
> balance in an uncorrectible way. I came up with
> the idea of doing an incremental, non-destructive
> memory test, one byte at a time. Steve's OS would
> call me and I had something like 30 MS to do one
> step of the test and to leave things unperturbed
> otherwise. I should have patented this.
> Learned how to use a differential oscilloscope to
> do head alignment on an 8" floppy drive. Not too
> hard -- insert a special floppy, and use an Allen
> wrench to loosen the heads. Tweak until a nice
> even pattern appeared on the scope, then tighten
> it down.
> At about this time, met Carmen, who would ultimately
> become my wife (5 kids and 23 years later this
> is definitely the highlight of that time).
> Same job, was assigned to write a program to check
> data supplied to the NIH for errors. The data was
> in rows and columns, so I came up with a set of
> formulas and constraints to express the desired
> relationships. Kind of like a spreadsheet, except
> inside out (dang, dang, dang -- so close!).
> At this point in the story I am barely 20 years old.
> Saved up some money and bought a used Apple ][. Spent
> borrowed money on a Language Card and a 300/1200
> baud modem.
> At school someone gave me a little slip of paper
> with a phone number on it. He told me to call it
> with a modem, which I did, at work. It answered
> "PENTAGON TIP".  I had been given the secret key
> to the Arpanet. After some experimentation I found
> that I could type "C" and a number between 1 and
> 255 to make a connection. Somehow managed to start
> logging onto a machine at Berkeley, and read all
> sorts of local restaurant reviews. How I figured
> this out, I have no clue.
> Around this time, Steve Herber, who had hired me
> at the first computer store, handed me a thick stack
> of manuals on a visit I made to Seattle. Little
> did he know just how great of a gift this was. He
> gave me a set of very early BSD manuals, bless his
> heart.
> After 1.5 years at school, dad could no longer foot
> the bill, so I decided to start working full time.
> Spent some time at a small government-funded research
> company, writing PL/I on a mainframe, and BASIC
> on a TRS-80 model III, with 4 floppy drives. Learned
> to do batch mode late at night, submitting jobs
> using VM/370 and a weird batch/interactive thing
> called Wylbur. Learned about the concept of the
> virtual machine.
> Started to learn about the 68000 chip for fun, since
> its architecture was reminiscent of the 6502. Still
> have the Osborne & Associates book on the subject.
> The local ComputerLand store had a special event
> and I got to attend the local unveiling of the
> IBM PC. Started chatting with a guy and I told
> him that IBM had made a bad choice of CPU. He
> asked me what I would have used and I told
> him that the 68000 was infinitely preferable. His
> name was Dave Dikel and we will meet him again
> soon.
> Continued going to school part time, 2 or 3 classes
> in the evening. Wrapped up my AA degree and managed
> to get admitted to the CS program at American
> University.
> Dave Dikel (from the IBM PC introduction) called. He
> was at a company called Intellimac and they were
> building some industrial-strength machines around
> the 68000. Bingo! Went to interview there. They had
> promised some customers that they could buy a machine
> that would support 4 users writing and compiling
> Ada code using Telesoft's Ada compiler. I was told
> that they had the OS (ROS) running in single user
> mode, and they asked if I could somehow turn it into
> a multi-user OS. I shrugged and said "sure", with no
> clue as to how I would do this.
> Due to my impressive claim, got hired on for $10/hour.
> Delivery for multi-user OS was 3 months out. Found
> out that they had lied and that all they had was
> bare hardware. Wrote hard disk, floppy, and serial
> drivers, and a boot loader the first 1.5 months, while
> thinking of how to do multiuser. This was a fairly
> simple OS which set up a linear address space and
> made no use of the memory mapping stuff present on
> our SUN cards (the SUN was Stanford University Network,
> I do believe). Decided that I could do multi-user by
> simply running 4 copies of the OS and building my
> own scheduler around this. Managed to get all of
> this running in a month, and it actually worked. Each
> OS partition could be booted independently. The available
> RAM was simply divided up evenly based on the number
> of serial ports on the box. The partitions could
> even crash (and be restarted) without harming the
> others. The "exception handling" section of my
> 68000 manual was pretty well-thumbed by the end of
> this. They managed to deliver on their promises and
> shipped more than a few of these 4-user, $50k Ada
> boxes.
> The sales folks at this company then promised a box
> which could run the Ada OS and Unix simultaneously,
> without asking me first. At some point they handed
> me a hard drive and said "here's your copy of
> Unix." Wrote a boot loader and somehow got it going.
> Spent a long time finding out that spaces and tabs
> were distinct in Makefiles.
> Got married in August of 1982. Still married.
> Needed to make more money and went to work for
> Contel Information Systems in Bethesda, Maryland. Worked
> on an early broadband network for the American Stock
> Exchange. They used Cable TV hardware and somehow
> managed to move data back and forth. Once again, worked
> with Steve Polyak from a few jobs before. Debugged
> an X.25 protocol handler and learned to use a logic
> analyzer. Learned to build really reliable code because
> the development and test environments were separated
> by hundreds of miles. Had a good boss who understood
> the value of spending enough money to get good
> equipment -- he once said "Once you buy the cheap
> one you understand why there's an expensive one."
> Kept working on my BS degree, 2 courses at a time,
> through all of this.
> That's about all I can write now. This brings us to
> about 1983. Do you want to hear more or is this boring?
> Jeff;
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Stephen D. Williams 703-724-0118W 703-995-0407Fax 20147-4622 AIM: sdw

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