Brown CS Blog

The Computer History Museum’s 40th Anniversary Celebration Of The Macintosh Includes A Shoutout To Brown CS


    by Norm Meyrowitz ‘81

    On January 24 of 2024, I attended the Computer History Museum (CHM)’s huge celebration in Silicon Valley for the 40th anniversary of the launch of the Apple Macintosh, where Brown CS got a shoutout during the two-hour program. Why would that be? I thought it would be interesting to those who weren’t around to learn about how universities – Brown in particular – were instrumental to the success of the computer that many now take for granted. 

    Today, virtually all of Brown's current undergraduates and a good number of current faculty and staff don't think twice about the introduction of personal computers, especially Macintoshes, any more than they think about the invention of televisions or microwave ovens – they just have always been around. Contrast that to faculty, staff, and alums who were at Brown more than 40 years ago, who inhabited a world where Macintoshes did not yet exist and a campus where most computing was done through “dumb terminals” dialed into the campus mainframe. 

    On January 24, 1984, that changed. Apple introduced the first mass-market personal computer with a graphical user interface. For most of the world, it was astonishing. It had a mouse, which virtually no one had seen or even heard of. Most other personal computers of the time had screens that only printed characters in a matrix of 24 lines of 80 characters each, while the Macintosh allowed one to draw graphics at a resolution of 512 x 342.

    Apple did not have the ironclad security “we don’t tell anyone anything before launch” policy they have today; they often gave sneak peeks of future products in advance of launch. Dan’l Lewin, the Sales and Market Development Manager for the Macintosh and Mike Murray, its Vice-President of Marketing, explained to the audience at the CHM celebration that they first sneaked to the Mac to New York City business executives in a formal focus group. How did it work? First, the execs used their familiar IBM PCs and then were given a pre-launch Mac to try. The hardened business people started giggling at how much fun they were having. To wrap up, a focus group leader asked them: which was easier to use? Mac. Which was more productive? Mac? Which was more effective? Mac! What will you recommend your purchasing department buy? IBM PCs. Dan’l and his colleagues realized that the product was going to fail if they relied on big corporations to be early adopters. 

    They had noticed when they tested the Mac on friends and family that those who were creative and artistic were captivated by what they could do with it. So where did Dan’l and colleagues go to find a concentration of those types of folks? Universities!

    So in the fall of 1983, Andy van Dam, the late Bill Shipp (Associate Provost of Computing), Tom Doeppner, Provost Maurice Glicksman,  and I (and a few others that can’t be recalled) were some of the lucky few who got to take an early look at the Mac – in all of its original 128 K (yes, K!) of RAM splendor. This didn't involve flying out to Cupertino. This involved three folks from Apple: Andy Hertzfeld ‘75 (referred to as AndyH henceforth), one of the key members of the Mac development team and former student of Andy’s), Dan’l, and none other than Steve Jobs himself

    Why was this visit important enough for Steve Jobs to visit? Brown was one of the three schools that were widely known as leaders in putting computers and networks across the campus – the other two were Carnegie Mellon University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Andy had a reputation for his work in graphics, so Steve thought it would be a trip worth taking (Brown was the only school he visited). 

    Brown CS had a lab full of Apollo workstations with bitmap screens and a much less polished interface than the Mac and cost $35,000 ($110,000 today). The Brown folks who saw the sneak peek of the Macintosh that day were uniformly blown away by the price ($2,495 - $7,000 in today’s dollars) and functionality even though they had seen Xerox PARC Alto workstations and their successors, so they knew what state-of-the-art WIMP (windows, icons, mouse, pointer) interfaces looked like. And Universities would get a discount off the Mac list price!

    In true Andy style, after singing the praises of the Mac, he told Steve that the machine wouldn’t be useful without a hard disk or network. (The original Mac had just a single drive for a 400 KB (yup, that’s K again!) removable diskette. Part of the system software and some apps were on the diskette, so if you wanted to use an app or store documents on another disk, the current disk would be ejected so you could put the other one in. When the operating system needed more code to continue running, that disk was ejected so you could put the system disk back. This sometimes led to absurd situations similar to thrashing in virtual memory – you would pop one disk in and it would be used for 5 seconds, then ejected so you could put the other disk in for 5 seconds, and then that was ejected, ad infinitum. Andy called this “milking”, since it appeared that one was treating the Mac like a cow, albeit one lying on its side. 

    As one might expect, Steve preferred praise to criticism. He and Andy went back and forth, with Steve saying something to the effect of “people don’t need a network, they’ll just pass diskettes back and forth – SneakerNet is just fine”. Lo and behold, Apple soon came out with a hard disk and a network. AndyH told me that the network hardware had already been completed before Andy and Steve had their tete-a-tete, but the software wasn’t ready at launch, so Steve pooh-poohed the entire notion of networks. Steve had a habit of dismissing anything Apple didn’t yet have as stupid or useless. After my time at Brown, in a meeting Macromedia had with Steve when the touch-screen iPod came out but before touch-based phones, I said to him, “You should make this into a phone.” Steve replied that Apple would never, ever, ever make a phone, that the carriers were just too hard to deal with. The iPhone launched soon after, so either he changed his mind and had the fastest hardware and software development in history or it was already in process.  

    After the meeting, the Provost took Andy aside and said he had never seen two people go at it as vehemently as Andy and Steve. Andy told him not to worry, that they were both enjoying it.

    Soon, Dan’l and his crew formally created the Apple University Consortium, a group of 24 schools that would be the key to the Mac’s initial success, with Brown amongst the first. Those schools all pledged that they would buy $2M worth of Macs over three years.  

    Andy, Bill, and I went about getting approval from Howard Swearer, Brown’s President at the time, to start an effort that would put computers across campus – Macs and IBM workstations – and raising $15M to make it happen. President Swearer signed off on the $2M deal with Dan’l. Both Swearer and Dan’l were Princeton grads, and Swearer said that since he was a Princeton man with Brown furniture, then Dan’l should have the same, and the President sent Dan’l a Brown-crested spindle chair that he still has. 

    Today, it seems incomprehensible that there was a point in time when nobody had a Mac, but without the help of Brown and other universities, the Macintosh might not still exist. Brown CS’s pre-introduction support of the Macintosh was important and memorable enough that it was called out in particular during a two-hour 40th anniversary celebration that included most of the original Mac team and hundreds of other industry and press luminaries.

    So, the next time you’re using your MacBook Pro or iMac, remember that you’re part of the lineage that helped move the Macintosh from obscurity to ubiquity.