Friday, July 26, 2013

The Land of Trac

In the third grade, our teacher Mrs. Smithy read us The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first of C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, in which a group of kids find a secret door in the back of a wardrobe and enter a fantastical, undreamed-of world.

In the fifth grade, in 1968, I became part of a group of kids that had found such a door.  The group was called the RESISTORS, and the door led to the world of computers and what is now called "information technology."

The group met in the house and barn of Claude Kagan, an engineer at the Western Electric Research Center in Pennington, NJ, near Princeton, where I grew up.  Claude was a complicated guy, by turns fun-loving, cantankerous, generous, childish, and more—but unswerving in his commitment to value of letting young people learn things and above all do things.  The principles of the RESISTORS were "Hands On" and "Each One Teach One," and those principles have stood me in good stead for the last 45 years.  (As I side note, last night I read a piece by Atul Gawande in the New Yorker in which he wrote that an essential realization in the dissemination of the medical miracle of oral rehydration was that when teachers fanned out to villages, the teaching was much more effective if the villagers made the solution under the teacher's instruction than if the teacher "showed them how."  This was one of the first things we learned as RESISTORS: if you are teaching people things, THEY should sit at the Teletype [a primitive 100 bps terminal, which no self-respecting Bangladeshi villager would tolerate today] and YOU should sit next to them, talking them through it.)

We used a number of computers and computer languages, but the computational beating heart of the group was Claude's PDP-8 computer at Western Electric, which we would dial into from a Teletype in his house.  It ran Trac, a computer language designed by Calvin Mooers, an independent thinker based in Cambridge, Mass.  The PDP-8 had 4K of RAM.  Yes, 4K, i.e. one one-millionth of the amount of RAM in the two-pound MacBook I'm typing on right now.  RAM was insanely expensive because it was made of little magnetic "cores" which were hand-strung, reportedly by armies of Filipinos.  OK, actually it had 4K of 12-bit words, so technically you could say it had 6K bytes.  A "Trac processor" (interpreter) could fit on such a machine, with some room left over for user-written scripts (programs).  There is really no computer today so minuscule that Trac makes sense as a language, and even fewer people would ever have heard of Trac today if Ted Nelson hadn't happened upon the RESISTORS and mentioned Trac in Computer Lib.