Code Stories: Window

It’s hard to imagine computers without windows. A standard of every graphical user interface, windows serve as the most common visual metaphor of a program’s interface. Captured within borders, the framing of the work is locked within rectangles on the screen. So powerful is this metaphor that an entire operating system first sold in 1985, Windows (TM), is named after what it provides users: windows.

In a more modern setting, windows stack on each other. They layer and create an archaeology of opened tasks and waiting data. They allow for showing different information at the same time, details piled on top of each other to create a semi-coherent narrative.

A Waiting Monster

Cookie Monster pictured with “C is for Cookie”

Cookie Monster, as he would later be called, first appears in an un-aired test commercial for a series of snacks called Wheels, Flutes and Crowns. It was the first time a “monster” would appear and eat food as a “wheel stealer.” A few years later, when Sesame Street was taping episodes for its eventual airing in 1971, the still-unnamed monster was planned as part of a sketch where a monster and his wife are on a quiz show and undecided about what prize they want from a pool of possible options.

As Davis (2014) explains, the script for the sketch was poor, so Jim Henson and Frank Oz decided to improvise some lines toward the end. When it came time for the choices, the couple were given were “either two weeks in Hawaii, all expenses paid; a free car; a new house and twenty-five thousand in cash, or . . . a cookie!” Frank Oz, as the voice of the monster, then agonized over the choices until the wife character remarks, “But you know how you like your cookies” (pp. 246-247).

Thinking for a few moments, the monster then straightens and bellows the now classic answer: “Cookie!” Later named for this moment, the Cookie Monster is still a recurring character on Sesame Street decades later, and forever tied to his first choice: cookies.

Trail of Crumbs

Copy of image from The Random-Access Image: Memory and the History of the Computer Screen, Gaboury, J. (2018)

The word pixel is general thought to be a portmanteau, a combination of two words, “picture” and “element”. Depending on the history, it might also come from two other words: “picture” and “cells.” Regardless of its origin, it is the smallest part of a computer graphic, usually represented at the hardware level. In April 1973, the first animated computer graphic was created using pixels. Pairing a screen with a computer, a series of images was converted to instructions and then transmitted to the screen.

By 1973, Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) had been running for a few years. Created as a research lab for Xerox, it collected recent graduate students and other noted scientists and engineers and let them invent more-or-less freely. It was famous for having a relaxed atmosphere and often irrelevant attitude about many things. It should come as no surprise, then, that the first animated computer graphic was Cookie Monster.

Created by first programming a minicomputer called a Data General Nova with a series of drawings and then transmitting the data to an experimental computer named the Xerox Alto under development at PARC at the time, the animation of Cookie Monster showed him holding a cookie as a test pattern as a black outline against a white background. This came shortly before the first digital video created using a camera to record images was also demoed at PARC with the infamous words of “It works! (sort of)” (Davis, 2014; p. 232).

The Mother

The name comes from Steven Levy (1994) and the book Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer That Changed Everything. Writing about the incident decades later, Levy (1994) declares: “It was the mother of all demos” (p. 42). Looking back, it is easy to see why. All the earmarks of modern computing was there. Mouse input, networking, real-time editing, and even windows. It was all there.

In 1968, at the Joint Computer Conference, Douglas Engelbart demoed the work being done at the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) and funded by then Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). The demo showed off their work in creating a system where multiple users could use a graphical interface at the same time using networking features. It was the summation of technologies years before they became available to the public and a decade before most were packaged again together and first commercially sold.

It also marked the peak and start of the decline for Augmentation Research Center (ARC). Starting the next year, people began to leave ARC, with many moving to a new research area being started in Palo Alto by Xerox called PARC. It was here, a few years after the “the mother of all demos,” that parts were re-created in an experimental computer called the Xerox Alto. It was to be the first personal computer with programs and using mouse input.

First designed in 1972, the goal of the Xerox Alto was to capture the graphical interface from the 1968 demo, but to package it into a minicomputer form. It would have drawing programs, text editing, and be the first step in getting more people using computers outside of the mostly academic and military applications of the first time.

Altos and Stars

Xerox Star (Xerox 8010 Information System)

The Xerox Alto is now remembered as the first personal computer. First sold on March 1, 1973, it was a commercial flop. Over the next ten years, only 2,000 units would be sold, with most of then used within Xerox itself. Yet, it laid the groundwork of what a personal computer could be, and most importantly, put the metaphor of windows in front of more people.

Less than a year later, Xerox created System Development Division (SDD) to market the inventions coming out of their PARC branch (Davis, 2014; p. 242). The goal of SSD was to make a commercial product with similar features to the Alto, but actively aimed at a new new market beyond the printing technology Xerox was selling at the time. Over the next few years, it would incorporate technologies invented at PARC including Ethernet, what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) editing, and the use of an “icon” system where different images would represent different types of files.

When the Xerox Star (Xerox 8010 Information System) hit the market in April 27, 1981, it was already too late for the Alto-to-Star transition and Xerox in the personal computer market. In 1978, Apple started work on what would become the Apple Lisa (released January 19, 1983), which was quickly followed by the Apple Macintosh (released January 22, 1984).

By the mid-1980s, as Xerox tried to sell its own personal computer and software inspired by the initial work from the Alto, it had to contend with Apple with its color graphics in 1983 and 1984, which was followed by a then-new company, Microsoft, selling its own system Windows (released on November 20, 1985).

References

Davis, M. (2014). Street gang: The complete history of sesame street. Penguin Books.

Gaboury, J. (2018). The Random-Access Image: Memory and the History of the Computer Screen. Grey Room, 70, 24–53. https://doi.org/10.1162/GREY_a_00233

Hiltzik, M. A. (1999). Dealers of lightning: Xerox PARC and the dawn of the computer age (1st ed). HarperBusiness.

Levy, S. (1994). Insanely great: The life and times of Macintosh, the computer that changed everything. Penguin Books.

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