Spinning Truth: Historical Accounts by Spinners

Edited by Les Earnest [LES] <les at cs.stanford.edu>


Pre-1963, Before the time of the new Stanford Spinners

SAGE like Forrest Gump by LES. The SAGE air defense system, which was initiated by MIT with funding from the U.S. Air Force in the early 1950s, was a technological marvel that provided the first interactive computing system for multiple people. It included the first point-and-click graphical user interface and the first computer network, using six levels of packetized data communication. However the term "packetized" didn't come into use until about 15 years later. The SAGE system spanned the U.S. And Canada and provided the technological foundation for the later ARPAnet and Internet. Each of the 23 main vacuum tube computers occupied the area of a football field.

Myths about the point-and-click graphical user interface to be written by LES. The use of a pointing device in conjuction with a computer display to initiate actions originated at MIT in the early 1950s but there have been many claims since then about others having invented it, all of which are fabrications.

Who invented timesharing? by LES. The answer to that question is “A lot of people”. The feasibility of interactive computing first came to light as an accidental spinoff of the SAGE air defense system, which was the first real time computer system. SAGE included special purpose timesharing services as an accidental byproduct of being the first real time computer system.

Xerox was evidently managed by office clerks by LES. During the 1960s and ‘70s the management of Xerox Corporation was widely praised in public media on the grounds that they had created a new kind of office copier that was very successful and very profitable. However it turned out that their management remained so focused on the needs of office clerks that they missed some important opportunities and eventually blundered into the computer field in a way that cost them dearly.

Small World: Why did McCarthy, Earnest, Licklider and Fredkin keep intersecting? To be written by Les Earnest

Artificial Intelligence Project, 1963-65

Can computers cope with human races? By LES. Published in Communications of the ACM, 1989.02. Based on the fact that all racial and ethnic classification systems in use today are scientific nonsense yet are written into laws and policies are are reported in the media on a daily basis, the public is clearly living in a fantasy world. This article reports what happened when I answered the race question on a high level security clearance application with “Mongrel.” It goes on to describe how such classifications could be made accurate using DNA analysis and a fairly simple mathematical process but points out that racial classification is a pointless exercise. Incidentally I have since learned through DNA analysis that I am definitely a Mongrel in that I am genetically 2.6% Neanderthal, which perhaps helps explain my attitude.

1965 AI Project Proposal to ARPA initiated a major transformation in this research group in that it produced funding of over $2 million that enabled the acquisition of a rather powerful timesharing system initially using the DEC PDP-6 computer, which evolved over time and provided support for a number of research projects. Computer time was so valuable in that era that people used it 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, 1966-80

SAIL [IDS], to be written by LES. The three letter identifiers adopted by SAIL computer users and still used by many came out of an earlier batch processing system with a last minute AI spin.


A hummingbird with range by LES. The radar atop Mt. Umunhum, south of San Jose, California, which was part of the SAGE air defense system, managed to get even with me in 1966 for badmouthing the crooked Military-Industrial-Congressional system in which it operated.

SAIL Recreation to be written by LES. Early SAIL people often indulged in late afternoon volleyball, occasional backpacking hikes in the Sierras, annual Spring Orgies with both athletic and intellectual competitions, Midpeninsula Free University courses and intercourses, occasional beach parties, and illegal skinny dipping in Felt Lake, just 400 meters from the Lab.

Stanford's Technology Licensing Program by LES. By chance I helped formulate Stanford's technology licensing policies, having been a member of their Research Committee in the late 1960s when that happened. That committee was chaired by the thoughtful Joshua Lederberg, a Nobel Lauriate, and was tentatively planning to claim that all technology developed at Stanford belonged to Stanford.

However I pointed out that under the terms of various research grants or contracts the sponsoring agency had free access to inventions that came out of such programs but also that people working at Stanford had been hired to teach or conduct research and not necessarily to invent things. In fact, some of their inventions came out of personal projects conducted at home that were unrelated to their work. I persuaded the committee to adopt a more liberal policy that permitted individuals to seek a patent on their own, at theiir own expense, or through Stanford at Stanford's expense and with the proceeds being shared in the latter case. That was what was adopted.

Proposals to ARPA for SAIL, HPP, and NPDP projects, 2073.01.01, edited by LES,. These proposals resulted in the continuation of support for SAIL and HPP and for the initialization of the Network Protocols Development Projet that led to the creation of TCP/IP and the Internet.

IBM Spy by David Grossman [DDG]. I first visited SAIL in 1972 as a member of a four-person IBM task force to advise what IBM should be doing in AI. We also visited MIT and SRI. The only advice I remember getting from any of our hosts was from Marvin Minsky: He said that IBM should build a PDP-10. Russ and I published an AI Report on a novel robot programming approach. Subsequently two other students plagiarized it and published it in a journal.

There's now a horse farm where the D.C. Power building used to stand. My granddaughter co-owns a horse there.

In 1994 John McCarthy told me that the AI progress he had expected would take 1 year had actually taken 25 years.

While I was on sabbatical from IBM in 1974, I finished final editing of an IBM Confidential paper I had drafted before leaving IBM. I printed it on the shared Xerox printer. John McCarthy got to the printer before me, saw the "IBM Confidential" and was quite angry about it.

In John McCarthy's office, the table was covered with stacks of papers. I always wondered if each stack had a pointer to another stack.

John McCarthy told me that someday robots would be used for same-day delivery of packages. The robots would be able to climb up the outside of apartment buildings and place your package in a mailbox outside your window. He asked me if I thought that was a reasonable prediction. I told him no.

Around 1980, Marvin Minsky visited IBM Research. He told me that in the factory of the future there would be no conveyor belts. Instead, when a robot finished work at its station, it would throw the workpiece to the next robot.

John McCarthy and Vera Watson had a very large dog which jolted my chair. I said "that felt like an earthquake." John replied that "an earthquake wouldn't be the dog's fault, it would be … San Andreas's fault."

Mythical Internet Histories by LES. Here are some early books that I read about Internet origins.

These are good reads on the whole but each contains a number of factual errors and substantial distortions, several of them shared, which suggests common sources. I don't necessarily blame the authors inasmuch as it is hard to tell whether the tales of self-proclaimed pioneers are straightforward, based on false memories or purposely distorted.

Given that I made notes while reading these books, I could write page-by-page refutations, but that would create a still larger book that I expect would be rather boring. Instead I will separately attempt to deconstruct some of the more important myths. My observations will admittedly be a bit uneven because some inventions come with more interesting stories than others.

Why did personal computers become popular so quickly? To be written by LES. It was not because they offered superior performance to timesharing – they didn't. The primary reason seems to have been human territorial instincts.