TI:George Swan/Project Xanadu's computer resources in 1979

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In the Fall of 1979 I traveled to Swarthmore Pennsylvania to work on Ted Nelson's Project Xanadu.

In one corner of the apartment was a home-built computer, which had originally been built around an intel 8080 processor. This processor had been replaced by a zilog 80 processor. These processors were of roughly comparable power to the motorola 6502 which powered the original Apple computer. This computer was capable of running at both 2 megahertz, or 4 megahertz. If I recall correctly this machine was unreliable when run at its top speed of 4 megahertz, and was underclocked to run at a blazing 2 megahertz.

The project's computer was supplemented by a dot matrix printer and an old acoustic coupler style 300 baud modem.

The printer and and modem were on loan from John Mauchly, one of the co-creators of the ENIAC. Prior to the news of the secret computers built in the United Kingdom during World War 2 to crack German codes, the ENIAC was usually credited as the world's first digital computer.

The computer had been built by Mark S. Miller, a computer science student at Yale University, who had spent much of the summer working on the Project. Mark had written an impressive full screen editor for the computer -- something I had never used before.

Ted had been given a copy of a C compiler that had been written for the 8080/z80 architecture, by an undergrad named Leor Zolman. Zolman, I believe, had been studying at MIT. This compiler was a very impressive project. The only aspect of Kernighan and Ritchie's specification for the C language missing from his compiler were support for floating point operations.

During the fall of 1979 someone had made a proposal to the publishers of Omni magazine, that an article about "telecommunication in the future" should be based on an actual online debate on "telecommunication in the future". A small number of respected thinkers, "futurists", etc., were to be the invited speakers, on the "Omnicon". The online debate was to be conducted on the EIES network.

Uninvited participants were welcome to leave their comments on a companion forum called "Omnibus".

The invited speakers were issued code names. Their actual identity was to be obfuscated. They were each to be known as a color, rather than a name. Ted was "yellow". The way the conference was set up Ted could see which codenames authored messages, and which invited participants had read messages. The online debate was to run for a week, ten days, or two weeks.

Ted's participation was beset by an initial low tech problem. He was having trouble with the acoustic coupler, and with his phone line. It turned out that a staple that was holding some plastic sheeting that had been placed over the windows in lieu of storm windows had pierced his phone line.

Ted read some of the responses he was preparing for the debate. As I recall he mocked some of the participants who projected that people would used new technology to communicate in a manner that left behind aggression and dominance with the other uncivilized acts we left behind as we emerged from the cave.

I asked Ted how the other participants had reacted to his comments. He told me he hadn't posted any of his responses yet, because he was waiting until the end in order to make a "big entrance".

But, it seemed to me that Alan Kay of Xerox PARC was the participant who made the best big entrance. He only read a couple of comments. As I recall Ted told me that Kay only left one comment, which was just one or two sentences, along the lines of "I haven't used a system this primitive since 197x."