Do you know when modern computing started? You may have an idea. Mine was around the 80s. It was a romantic view; I born around those years and it was nice to think that computing was my age. I was wrong.
Modern computing never started. To be more precise, it had a false start around the 60s and proceeded to slowly froze away until apparent stagnation. Here is a story about few slices of those early computing times that amazed me. I’ll tell the story as I unfolded it, following connections arising from curiosity. It all stated with a bizarre language called Smalltalk and the time was still what I considered plausible: the 80s.
Somehow, in the back of my mind, I knew that objective-C was a mix of C and Smalltalk. I decided to take a look. I found a short and easy document that explained how to read Smalltalk. The language felt outstanding just by reading that informal specification. A complete language based on the sole idea of message passing (and objects).
I tried it with Pharo that contains a very practical and funny tutorial. Immediately after I tried hacking a bit in this environment. It was strange, there was no place to write a program. You could write small snippets of code and organize them in an “object browser”.
That was so uncomfortable! I could stand an interpreted language; but being forced to use it inside a sandbox environment without a syntax to write it in a single file? That’s right, not even the smalltalk-80 standard has a syntax to declare class or instance methods. I spent quite some time trying to figure out that. Eventually I had to accept the truth and it was hard, I was about to mark this language as a joke. However my curiosity was not jet satisfied.
This Pharo was based on Sqeak. Squeak was coming out almost everywhere when searching for Smalltalk. At a first look, it confuses you, than you may feel kinda kidded. No wonder it has been developed at Disney!
It took a while before my prejudice got overrun by new, fascinating concepts. However, before that, my next question was more insightful that curious: who made this thing?!
I came across a document called the early history of Smalltalk. Even before reading it, my eye got catch by where this document was written: Apple computer. My initial curiosity was coming back as in an engaging novel. Few lines inside the intro, I read this “when I invented smalltalk”. I stopped reading and my eyes jumped back under the paper title. Author: Alan Kay. It turned out, that he is the guy.
The series of companies in which Kay worked was impressive. I could see Xerox and Apple there, immediately connecting whit what, even in movies, is known to be the origins of the mouse and basically everything else that makes a computer today.
There was also Disney in the list. It was soon clear to me, that wherever Kay went, Smalltalk soon followed.
My adventure finally had a main character; and Kay was perfect as a main character. Not only he had around him this myst of profound knowledge that trigger respect; but he was also still alive. Very much so indeed as I could see from this lecture he gave in Germany.
That talk was very inspiring to me. It is than that I realized how much IT got stuck in the typical corporate misconception of “don’t change it while it works”.
The talk also made clear what Kay was trully passionate about: making new learning tools for kids. He talked about it a lot pointing out that Smalltalk together with Squeak and eToys (an interactive playing environment to learn about interactions in the real world) are tools designed for that purpose.
One of the most recent interviews with Alan Kay was particularly mind blowing. In it, Kay points out how IT is lacking of true engineering and that Smalltalk (which is in my opinion one of the best conceived computer languages on earth) is outdated and new, novel approaches can and should be researched.
More to discover
At the end of all this little adventure in what I guess it’s known (but ignored?) history of true computer science, there was even more to discover. Looking even further back, there is Bob Barton, university professor of Kay and pioneer of computer science. He made machines such as the B5000, that looks like dwarven engineering in a fantasy medieval world. And back again to Douglas Engelbart, some kind of alien.
All of them deserves more dedicated words which I’ll eventually put together. For now, I’ll close by pointing out a comprehensive talk by Alan Kay about the history of computing and here are some interesting links to know more about Smalltalk:
- Viewpoints Research Institute – research institute founded by Alan Kay among others;
- The World of Smalltalk – a collection of Smalltalk related informations;
- ESUG Videos – a collection of videos of the European Smalltalk User Group;