This Week In Tech History: Steve Jobs And The NeXT Big Thing


October 12, 1988

Steve Jobs unveiled the NeXT Computer at Symphony Hall in San Francisco. A day or two later, I was among a standing-room only crowd at Boston’s Symphony Hall admiring the all-black, beautifully-designed “workstation” with a brand-new optical drive (no hard disk drive in the computer of the future according to Jobs) that played a duet with a human violinist.

That night I sent a gushing memo to my colleagues at DEC, telling them that the future has arrived and that Jobs education-sector-first marketing strategy was brilliant. Indeed, CERN was one of the early adopters and Tim Berners-Lee developed the first WWW browser/editor on the NeXT workstation. But NeXT Computer, Inc. went on to sell only 50,000 beautifully-designed “cubes,” getting out of the hardware business altogether in 1993.

For many years, I have kept in my office the “Computing advances to the NeXT level” poster I got that night as a reminder that forecasting the next big (or small) thing in technology is tough, even impossible.

And yet, many people believe that technology marches according to some “laws” or pre-defined trajectory and that all we have to do is decipher the “evolutionary” path technology (or the economy or society) is destined to follow.

Jobs went on to introduce the iPod and  the iPad, industry-changing devices whose invention was made possible, among other things, by a tiny disk drive. The possibility of a significant boost to the simultaneous shrinking (of size) and enlarging (of capacity) of disk drives was known since the discovery of the giant magnetoresistance effect in the very same year the NeXT Computer was introduced, 1988. Still, no one predicted the iPod.  Similarly, in 1990 no one predicted how the Web will change how we consume and create information or in 2000, how server virtualization will change the cost and availability of IT-on-demand, although both technologies existed at the time.

To quote someone who had the opportunity to meet his future, “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if preserved in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.” We cannot predict our future. But, like Ebenezer Scrooge, we can create it. Steve Jobs did.

The move Steve Jobs opened Friday, October 9, 2015, with the launch of the NeXT Computer as one of the three product launches that form its story line.

October 13, 1860

James Wallace Black made the first successful aerial photographs in the United States. He photographed Boston from a hot-air balloon at 1,200 feet. One good print resulted, which Black titled “Boston as the Eagle and the Wild Goose see it.”

October 13, 1983

The wireless industry was born when the head of Ameritech Mobile Communications placed the first commercial cellphone call from Chicago (home of the first city-wide cellular network) to Alexander Graham Bell’s grandson in Germany. By the end of 2014, annual wireless revenues were 187.8 billion, wireless penetration in the U.S. was 110%, and 44% of U.S. households were wireless-only. Annual wirelss data usage rose from 1.468 trillion megabytes in 2012 to 4.06 trillion megabytes in 2014.

October 14, 1888

Louis Le Prince shot Roundhay Garden Scene, the earliest surviving motion picture.


October 15, 1973

Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson presented their first paper on Unix at the Fourth ACM Symposium on Operating Systems Principles (SOSP). The paper was later published in the July 1974 issue of Communications of the ACM. Ritchie and Thompson received the Turing Award from the ACM in 1983, the Hamming Medal from the IEEE in 1990 and the National Medal of Technology from President Clinton in 1999.

October 17, 1907

Guglielmo Marconi inaugurated the first regular transatlantic radio-telegraph service between Clifden, Ireland and Glace Bay, Canada.

October 18, 1954

Texas Instruments announced the first transistor radio, the Regency TR-1, which sold for $49.95 (about $440 in today’s dollars).

October 18, 1999

Steve Jobs was featured on the cover of Time magazine. Jobs talked about his two companies, Apple Computer and Pixar, in “Steve’s Two Jobs” by Michael Krantz. It starts with the sentence: “It’s 3:00 P.M. in Richmond, Calif., and Steve Jobs is micromanaging.”

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This Week In History: Making Copies and Giant Brains

First xerographic copy - 10-22-38 ASTORIA. Source: Wikipedia

First xerographic copy, 1938. Source: Wikipedia

October 6, 1942

Chester Carlson received a patent for electrophotography which he invented four years earlier.  Searching for a buyer for his invention between 1939 and 1944, Carlson was turned down by more than 20 companies, including IbM, GE, Eastman Kodak and RCA. In 1946, Haloid, a small photo-paper maker in Rochester, New York, agreed to license electrophotography.  Haloid changed the name of the technology to xerography in 1948 and, in 1961, changed the name of the company to Xerox.  In 1960, when the company shipped the first cheap and convenient office copier (the 914), there were predictions that it may sell 5,000 units in 3 years, but by the end of 1962, 10,000 units have been sold.

In 1955, four years before the introduction of the 914, the world made about 20 million copies, almost all of them by non-xerographic means; in 1964, five years after the introduction of the 914, it made nine and a half billion, almost all xerographically. Five hundred and fifty billion in 1984. Seven hundred billion in 1985. And in 2004, the world produced more than three trillion xerographic copies.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote in “The Social Life of Paper” in 2002:  “This is one of the great puzzles of the modern workplace. Computer technology was supposed to replace paper. But that hasn’t happened. Every country in the Western world uses more paper today, on a per-capita basis, than it did ten years ago. The consumption of uncoated free-sheet paper, for instance—the most common kind of office paper—rose almost fifteen per cent in the United States between 1995 and 2000.”

In the same year, Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper published The Myth of the Paperless Office: “The paperless office is a myth not because people fail to achieve their goals, but because they know too well that their goals cannot be achieved without paper. This held true over thirty years ago when the idea of the paperless office first gained some prominence, and it holds true today at the start of the twenty-first century.”

Today, the average office worker uses 10,000 sheets of copy paper every year. Collectively, that’s 4 million tons of copy paper used in one year in the U.S. alone.

October 7, 1806

Ralph Wedgwood received the first patent for carbon paper. Wedgwood, like his Italian contemporary and fellow carbon paper inventor Pellegrino Turri, was trying to help blind people write, the “black paper” being a substitute for ink.

As late as 1955, Chester Carlson was still making carbon copies of his own letters.

October 8, 1996

ENIACstamp50U.S. Postal Service issued a new stamp commemorating the 50th birthday of ENIAC, the first large-scale, electronic digital computer and 50 years of computer technology. This was the first U.S. Stamp dedication to be broadcast live over the InterNet’s MBONE. Stamp collectors in 6 countries were able to watch and listen in real time.

The stamp shows an image of a brain partially covered by small blocs that contain parts of circuit boards and binary code. The image encapsulates well the conviction that computers are giant brains, articulated in 1949 by Edmund Berkeley in his book, Giant Brains or Machines that Think: “Recently there have been a good deal of news about strange giant machines that can handle information with vast speed and skill….These machines are similar to what a brain would be if it were made of hardware and wire instead of flesh and nerves… A machine can handle information; it can calculate, conclude, and choose; it can perform reasonable operations with information. A machine, therefore, can think.” Thirty years later, Marvin Minsky famously stated: “The human brain is just a computer that happens to be made out of meat.”

To which Joseph Weizenbaum replied: “What do these people actually mean when they shout that man is a machine (and a brain a ‘meat machine’)? It is… that human beings are ‘computable,’ that they are not distinct from other objects in the world… all this is not the fault of the computer. Guilt cannot be attributed to computers. But computers enable fantasies, many of them wonderful, but also those of people whose compulsion to play God overwhelms their ability to fathom the consequences of their attempt to turn their nightmares into reality. I recall, in this connection, a debate I once had with Herbert Simon. Perhaps frustrated by my attitudes, he shouted: ‘Knowledge is better than ignorance!’ (I think he thought he had me there). I replied:  ‘Yes! But not at any price.’”

But Weizenbaum was in a small and ever-decreasing minority. In his 2005 book, The Singularity is Near, Ray Kurzweil predicted that by 2045, machine intelligence may equal or surpass the collective intelligence of all human beings on Earth.

October 11, 1979

The Nobel Prize in Medicine is awarded to Allan M. Cormack and Godfrey N. Hounsfield for the “development of computer assisted tomography”. About 80 million CT scans are currently performed annually in the U.S., up from 3 million in 1980.

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This Week In Tech History: Think Different

Apple_ThinkDifferent_EinsteinSeptember 28, 1997

Apple Computer launched the “Think different” marketing campaign. The campaign’s television commercials featured black-and-white footage of 17 iconic 20th century personalities and a free-verse poem read by Richard Dreyfuss, starting with the words “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. “ These turned out to be the opening lines in the second act of Steve Jobs and Apple.

The campaign’s slogan, “Think different,” was probably a play on the much earlier slogan “THINK,” coined by Thomas J. Watson, Sr.  In the winter of 1911, Watson ordered that signs with just one word–THINK–be put all over the NCR factory in Dayton, Ohio. Later, as CEO of IBM, he told his sales people: “Every man on the selling force of this business today would make two dollars where he now only makes one, if he would but THINK along the right line. ‘I didn’t think’ has cost the world millions of dollars.”


Thomas Watson Sr.

In 2011, Google started publishing Think Quarterly, “to prepare you for what happens next.”


September 29, 1936

Franklin Delano Roosevelt opened his campaign for re-election with a speech to the New York State Democratic Convention. This was the first U.S. presidential campaign in which both parties used radio broadcasts to deliver their messages and present their candidate to a national audience.


September 30, 1915

David Sarnoff, Chief Inspector for The Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America (and later CEO of RCA and NBC) wrote to his superiors: “I have in mind a plan of development which will make radio a ‘household utility’ in the same sense as the piano or phonograph. The idea is to bring music into the home by wireless. The receiver can be designed in the form of a simple ‘Radio Music Box,’ placed on a table in the parlor or living room.”  Sarnoff may have actually written this memo in 1920, but later claimed it was written before 1916, the year Lee De Forest and others started broadcasting news and transmitting music over the wireless to multiple recipients.

David Sarnoff Photo courtesy of the David Sarnoff Research Center

David Sarnoff
Photo courtesy of the David Sarnoff Research Center

October 4, 1955

The first field trial of a rural telephone system making use of transistors and the Bell Solar Battery was held in Americus, Georgia. Almost one quarter of the world’s population today lives without electricity, and solar-powered mobile phones dominate their long-distance communications.


Bell Labs engineer testing solar battery in 1954

Solar powered Samsung phone

Solar powered Samsung phone

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Data Visualization, 350BC – 1879

data visualization infographic

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The Tech Boom of the 1880s


Vaclav Smil in IEEE Spectrum:

According to the worshippers of the e-world, the late 20th century brought us an unprecedented number of profound inventions. But that is a categorical misunderstanding, as most recent advances have been variations on the microprocessor theme and on the parsing of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Perhaps the most inventive time was the 1880s. Have any two sets of primary inventions and epochal discoveries shaped the modern world more than electricity and internal combustion engines?

Martin Wolf in Foreign Affairs:

Past innovations generated vastly greater unmeasured value than the relatively trivial innovations of today… What we know for the moment is that there is nothing extraordinary in the changes we are now experiencing. We have been here before and on a much larger scale.

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Mobile Phone Evolution

MobilePhoenEvolutionHT: @ValaAfshar

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First Book Dust Jacket

Neues Taschenbuch Von Nürnberg (2 Volumes)

Neues Taschenbuch Von Nürnberg (2 Volumes)

From Biblio Blog: “Prior to the 1820s, most books were issued as unbound sheets or with disposable board covers. Customers would buy the text-blocks and commission bindings themselves–often to match the other titles in their library. For this reason, dust jackets were neither needed nor desired. Instead of a dust jacket, some printers would protect the exterior with a blank page (called by some a “bastard title”).

Besides these temporary boards or blank pages, the earliest version of the dust jacket was a slipcase, or sheath, first seen in the late 18th century. They were essentially small boxes, open on one or both ends, often constructed of pasteboard. The sheaths typically housed literary annuals, gift books, or pocket diaries. Literary annuals were quite popular and during the 1820s, it became common for publishers to print them in sheaths.

According to dust jacket authority, G. Thomas Tanselle, it was likely these sheaths that “gave prominence to the idea of a detachable publisher’s covering.”  Indeed, typographer Ruari McLean asserted that the sheath “can be called the progenitor of the book jacket, since its function was to attract and protect.”

The Second Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
The Second Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

But of course, though forerunners, sheaths were not dust jackets. During the 1820s, publishers began encasing annuals and gift books in a sort of wrapping paper, printed with just enough text to identify the volume. While many book bindings of the period plain, annuals and gift books tended to be more ornate, and publishers sought to protect these books in transit.

In 2009, the Bodleian Library, Oxford discovered what is often cited as the earliest known example of a dust jacket. It was a paper wrapper for a gift book, bound in silk, entitled Friendship’s Offering (1829). The wrapper was intended to completely enclose the book, and in fact, there remain traces of sealing wax from where the paper was secured. Prior to the discovery of this volume, the earliest-known example was another gift book, The Keepsake (1833).

However, it is now considered uncertain whether Friendship’s Offering is the oldest known dust jacket (although it does seem to be the earliest English language example). The German two volume Neues Taschenbuch Von Nürnberg—surviving in multiple copies–seems to precede Friendship’s Offering by over a decade. Published in 1819, the set, encased in plain paper dust jackets, describes many of Nürnberg’s most famous attractions and personalities, including Albrecht Dürer and Peter Vischer.

Leaves Of Grass Including Sands at Seventy...1st Annex, Good-Bye my Fancy...2nd Annex, A Backward Glance O'er Traveled Roads, and Portrait from Life by Walt Whitman
Leaves Of Grass Including Sands at Seventy…1st Annex, Good-Bye my Fancy…2nd Annex, A Backward Glance O’er Traveled Roads, and Portrait from Life by Walt Whitman

It is difficult to ascertain when, exactly, paper wrappers first were employed by publishers, since they were intended to be discarded. In fact, the wrappers were frequently destroyed in the process of opening them–think of all the torn wrapping paper on birthdays or Christmas. Nevertheless, examples have survived from 1829 through the early 20th century.

The modern-style dust jacket was first introduced in the 1830s–although possibly earlier (evidence is inconclusive). Featuring flaps, it was a much-improved design. These dust jackets could remain on the book when it was opened, providing protection for volumes even as they were read.

By the 1870s, dust jackets had become common–although in many cases, they were left blank. A letter from Lewis Carroll to his publisher in 1876 provides insight into how dust jackets were viewed in the period. He requested that the publisher print the title of his latest book, The Hunting of the Snark, on the spine of the “paper wrapper” so that the book would remain in “cleaner and more saleable condition.” He goes on to ask that the same be done for his older books, “even those on hand which are already wrapped in plain paper.”

Carroll’s letter is evidence of the next stage of dust jacket evolution. From plain paper, publishers began printing titles on the spine of the jacket–allowing customers to view a book from the shelf and know its contents without opening it or removing the paper. While some dust jackets of the 1870s and 1880s did feature printing on the front, back, and flaps, these practices were not common and were instead specific to each publisher.”

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