SPACEWAR – Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums

Tuesday, September 16th, 2003

I stumbled across a copy of a Rolling Stone article from 1972, SPACEWAR – Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums, describing the first video game (Spacewar, from 1960) and early “computer bums”:

I’m guessing that Alan Kay at Xerox Research Center (more on them shortly) has a line on it, defining the standard Computer Bum: “About as straight as you’d expect hotrodders to look. It’s that kind of fanaticism. A true hacker is not a group person. He’s a person who loves to stay up all night, he and the machine in a love-hate relationship… They’re kids who tended to be brilliant but not very interested in conventional goals. And computing is just a fabulous place for that, because it’s a place where you don’t have to be a Ph.D. or anything else. It’s a place where you can still be an artisan. People are willing to pay you if you’re any good at all, and you have plenty of time for screwing around.”

The hackers are the technicians of this science — “It’s a term of derision and also the ultimate compliment.”

Timeless — and yet so very, very dated.

I love the description of how Spacewars came to be:

“We had this brand new PDP-l,” Steve Russell recalls. “It was the first minicomputer, ridiculously inexpensive for its time. And it was just sitting there. It had a console typewriter that worked right, which was rare, and a paper tape reader and a cathode ray tube display, [There had been CRT displays before, but primarily in the Air Defense System.] Somebody had built some little pattern-generating programs which made interesting patterns like a kaleidoscope. Not a very good demonstration. Here was this display that could do all sorts of good things! So we started talking about it, figuring what would be interesting displays. We decided that probably you could make a two-Dimensional maneuvering sort of thing, and decided that naturally the obvious thing to do was spaceships.”


“I had just finished reading Doc Smith’s Lensman series. He was some sort of scientist but he wrote this really dashing brand of science fiction. The details were very good and it had an excellent pace. His heroes had a strong tendency to get pursued by the villain across the galaxy and have to invent their way out of their problem while they were being pursued. That sort of action was the thing that suggested Spacewar. He had some very glowing descriptions of spaceship encounters and space fleet maneuvers.”

“Doc” Smith:

The Boise leaped upon the Nevian, every weapon aflame. But, as Costigan had expected, Nerado’s vessel was completely ready far any emergency. And, unlike her sister-ship, she was manned by scientists well-versed in the fundamental theory of the weapons with which they fought. Beams, rods and lances of energy flamed and flared; planes and pencils cut, slashed and stabbed; defensive screens glowed redly or flashed suddenly into intensely brilliant, coruscating incandescence. Crimson opacity struggled sullenly against violet curtains of annihilation. Material projectiles and torpedoes were launched under full-beam control; only to be exploded harmlessly in mid-space, to be blasted into nothingness or to disappear innocuously against impenetrable polycyclic screens.

Triplanetary (1948)

Check out this early ARPA Net history:

The next (and current) director at ARPA-IPT was Larry Roberts, a brilliant researcher who had developed the first 3-D vision programs. His major project has been getting the ARPA Network up. (“Up” around computers means working, the opposite of “down” or crashed.) The dream for the Net was that researchers at widely separated facilities could share special resources, dip into each other’s files, and even work on-line together on design problems too complex to solve alone.

At present some 20 major computer centers are linked on the two-year-old ARPA Net. Traffic on the Net has been very slow, due to delays and difficulties of translation between different computers and divergent projects. Use has recently begun to increase as researchers travel from center to center and want to keep in touch with home base, and as more tantalizing, sharable resources come available. How Net usage will evolve is uncertain. There’s a curious mix of theoretical fascination and operational resistance around the scheme. The resistance may have something to do with reluctances about equipping a future Big Brother and his Central Computer. The fascination resides in the thorough rightness of computers as communications instruments, which implies some revolutions.

Twenty major computer centers…

Leave a Reply