The Birth of Infocom

05 Jan

As the Dynamic Modeling Group put the final touches on Zork and put it to bed at last, it was beginning to feel like the end of an era at MIT. Marc Blank was about to graduate medical school and begin his residency in Pittsburgh, which would make extensive MIT hacking impossible even given his seemingly superhuman capacities. Others were finishing their own degree programs at MIT, or just running out of justifications for forestalling “real” careers with real salaries by hanging around their alma mater. In fact, a generational exodus was beginning, not just from the DMG but from MIT’s Laboratory for Computer and AI Lab in general as well. Pressures from the outside world were intruding on the hacker utopia inside MIT at last, pressures which in the next few years would change it forever. Much of the change stemmed from the invention of the microcomputer.

Most in established institutional hacking environments like MIT were initially nonplussed by what’s come to be called the PC revolution. That’s not so surprising, really. Those early microcomputers were absurdly limited machines. The homebrew hackers who bought (and often built) them were just excited to have unfettered access to something that, however minimally, met the definition of “computer.” Those privileged to find a place at an institution like MIT, however, not only had unfettered or nearly unfettered access to the systems there, but said systems were powerful enough to really do something. What charms did an Altair or even TRS-80 have to compare with sophisticated operating systems like TOPS-10 or TOPS-20 or ITS, with well-structured programming languages like LISP and MDL, with research into AI and natural-language processing, even with networked games like Maze and Trivia and, yes, Zork? The microcomputer world looked like a hopelessly uncultured and untutored one, bereft of a whole hacking tradition stretching back two decades or more. How could anyone try to build complex software using BASIC? When many institutional hackers deigned to notice the new machines at all, it was with withering contempt; Stu Galley called “We hate micros!” the unofficial motto of the DMG. They regarded the micros as little more than toys — the very same reaction as most of the general population.

By the spring of 1979, though, it was becoming increasingly clear to anyone willing to look that the little machines had their uses. WordStar, the first really usable microcomputer word processor, had been out for a year, and was moving more and more CP/M-based machines into offices and even writer’s studies. At the West Coast Computer Faire that May, Dan Bricklin demonstrated for the first time VisiCalc, the world’s first spreadsheet program, which would revolutionize accounting and business-planning practice. “How did you ever do without it?” asked the first pre-release advertisement, hyperbolically but, as it turned out, presciently; a few years later millions would be asking themselves just that question. Unlike WordStar and even Scott Adams’s Adventureland, VisiCalc was not a more limited version of an institutional computing concept implemented on microcomputer hardware. It had been conceived, designed, and implemented entirely on the Apple II, the first genuinely new idea in software to be born on the microcomputer — and a sign of a burgeoning changing of the guard.

The microcomputer brought many, many more users to computers than had ever existed before. That in turn brought more private-industry investment into the field, driven by a new reality: that you could make real money at this stuff. And that knowledge brought big changes to MIT and other institutions of “pure” hacking. Most (in)famously, the AI Lab was riven that winter and spring of 1979 by a dispute between Richard Greenblatt, pretty much the dean of the traditional hacker ethic at MIT, and a more pragmatic administrator named Russell Noftsker. Along with a small team of other hackers and hardware engineers, Greenblatt had developed a small single-user computer — a sort of boutique micro, the first of what would come to be called “workstations” — optimized for running LISP. Believing the design to have real commercial potential, Noftsker approached Greenblatt with a proposal to form a company and manufacture it. Greenblatt initially agreed, but soon proved (at least in Noftsker’s view) unwilling to sacrifice even the most minute hacker principle in the face of business realities. The two split in an ugly way, with Noftsker taking much of the AI Lab with him to implement Greenblatt’s original concept as Symbolics, Inc. Feeling disillusioned and betrayed, Greenblatt eventually left as well to form his own, less successful company, Lisp Machines.

It’s not as if no one had ever founded a company out of MIT before, nor that commerce had never mixed with the idealism of the hackers there. The founders of DEC itself, Ken Olson and Harlan Anderson, were MIT alumni who had done the basic design for what became DEC’s first machine, the PDP-1, as students there in the mid-1950s. Thereafter, MIT maintained always a cozy relationship with DEC, testing hardware and, most significantly, developing much essential software for the company’s machines — a relationship that was either, depending on how you look at it, a goldmine for the hackers in giving them perpetual access to the latest technology or a brilliant scheme by DEC for utilizing some of the best computing minds of their generation without paying them a dime. Still, what was happening at MIT in 1979 felt qualitatively different. These hackers were almost all software programmers, after all, and the microcomputer market was demonstrating that it was now possible to sell software on its own as prepackaged works, the way you might a record or a book. As a wise man once said, “Money changes everything.” Many MIT hackers were excited by the potential lucre, as evidenced by the fact that many more chose to follow Noftsker than the idealistic Greenblatt out of the university. Only a handful, such as Marvin Minsky and the ever-stubborn Richard Stallman, remained behind and continued to hew relentlessly to the old hacker ethic.

Infocom’s founders were not among the diehards. As shown by their willingness to add (gasp!) security to ITS to protect their Zork source, something that would have drawn howls of protest from Stallman on at least two different levels, their devotion to the hacker ethic of total sharing and transparency was negotiable at best. In fact, Al Vezza and the DMG had been mulling over commercial applications for the group’s creations as far back as 1976. As the 1979 spring semester wrapped up, however, it seemed clear that if this version of the DMG, about to be scattered to the proverbial winds as it was, wanted to do something commercially, the time to get started was now. And quite a lot of others at MIT were doing the same thing, weren’t they? It wouldn’t do to be left behind in an empty lab, as quite literally happened to poor old Richard Stallman. That’s how Al Vezza saw the situation, anyway, and his charges, eager to remain connected and not averse to increasing their modest university salaries, quickly agreed.

And so Infocom was officially founded on June 22, 1979, with ten stockholders. Included were three of the four hackers who had worked on Zork: Tim Anderson, Dave Lebling, and the newly minted Dr. Marc Blank (commuting from his new medical residency in Pittsburgh). There were also five other current or former DMG hackers: Mike Broos, Scott Cutler, Stu Galley, Joel Berez, Chris Reeve. And then there was Vezza himself and even Licklider, who agreed to join in the same sort of advisory role he had filled for the DMG back at MIT. Each person kicked in whatever funding he could afford, ranging from $400 to $2000, and received an appropriate percentage of the new company’s stock in return. Total startup funds amounted to $11,500. The name was necessarily nondescript, considering that no one knew quite what (if anything) the company would eventually do. The fractured, futuristic compound was much in vogue amongst technology companies of the time — Microsoft, CompuWare, EduWare — and Infocom just followed the trend in choosing the name “least objectionable to everyone.”

As should be clear from the above, Infocom did not exactly begin under auspicious circumstances. I’d call them a garage startup, except that they didn’t even have a garage. Infocom would exist for some months as more of a theoretical company in limbo than an actual business entity. It didn’t even get its first proper mailing address — a P.O. Box — until March of 1980. Needless to say, no one was quitting their day jobs as they met from time to time over the following months to talk about what ought to come next. In August, Mike Broos had already gotten bored with the endeavor and quit, leaving just nine partners. Everyone agreed that they needed something they could put together relatively quickly to sell and really get the company off the ground. More ambitious projects could then follow. But what could they do for that first project?

The hackers trolled through their old projects from MIT, looking for ideas. They kept coming back to the games. There was that Trivia game, but it wouldn’t be practical to store enough questions on a floppy disk to make it worthwhile. More intriguing was the Maze game. Stand-up arcades were booming at the time. If Infocom could build a version of Maze for arcades, they would have something unprecedented. Unfortunately, getting there would require a huge, expensive hardware- as well as software-engineering project. The Infocom partners were clever enough, but they were all software rather than hardware hackers, and money was in short supply. And then of course there was Zork… but there was no way to squeeze a 1 MB adventure game into a 32 K or 48 K microcomputer. Anyway, Vezza wasn’t really comfortable with getting into the games business on any terms, fearing it could tarnish the company’s brand even if only used to raise some early funds and bootstrap the startup. So there was also plenty of discussion of other, more business-like ideas also drawn from the DMG’s project history: a document-tracking system, an email system, a text-processing system.

Meanwhile, Blank was living in Pittsburgh and feeling rather unhappy at being cut off from his old hacking days at MIT. Luckily, he did have at least one old MIT connection there. Joel Berez had worked with the DMG before graduating in 1977. He had spent the last two years living in Pittsburgh and working for his family’s business (which experience perhaps influenced the others to elect him as Infocom’s President in November of 1979). Blank and Berez made a habit of getting together for Chinese food (always the hacker’s staple) and talking about the old times. These conversations kept coming back to Zork. Was it really impossible to even imagine getting the game onto a microcomputer? Soon the conversations turned from nostalgic to technical. As they began to discuss technical realities, other challenges beyond even that of sheer computing capacity presented themselves.

Even if they could somehow get Zork onto a microcomputer, which microcomputer should they choose? The TRS-80 was by far the best early seller, but the Apple II, the Cadillac of the trinity of 1977, was beginning to come on strong now, aided by the new II Plus model and VisiCalc. Next year, and the year after that… who knew? And all of these machines were hopelessly incompatible with one another, meaning that reaching multiple platforms must seemingly entail re-implementing Zork — and any future adventure games they might decide to create — from scratch on each. Blank and Berez cast about for some high-level language that might be relatively portable and acceptable for implementing a new Zork, but they didn’t find much. BASIC was, well, BASIC, and not even all that consistent from microcomputer to microcomputer. There was a promising new implementation of the more palatable Pascal for the Apple II on the horizon, but no word of a similar system on other platforms.

So, if they wanted to be able to sell their game to the whole microcomputer market rather than just a slice of it, they would need to come up with some sort of portable data design that could be made to work on many different microcomputers via an interpreter custom-coded for each model. Creating each interpreters would be a task in itself, of course, but at least a more modest one, and if Infocom should decide to do more games after Zork the labor savings would begin to become very significant indeed. In reaching this conclusion, they followed a line of reasoning already well-trod by Scott Adams and Automated Simulations.

But then there was still another problem: Zork currently existed only as MDL source, a language which of course had no implementation on any microcomputer. If they didn’t want to rewrite the entire game from scratch — and wasn’t the point of this whole exercise to come up with a product relatively quickly and easily? — they would have to find a way to make that code run on microcomputers.

They had, then, quite a collection of problems. We’ll talk about how they solved every one of them — and pretty brilliantly at that — next time.


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3 Responses to The Birth of Infocom

  1. DZ-Jay

    February 8, 2017 at 10:46 am

    Hi, there,

    This is an exceptional blog. I found it by accident (or referenced from somewhere, I can’t recall), and I have been enthralled by it since. I’ve been reading every single article in the Table of Contents, in sequence, finding myself on this one by now, and daunted by the remaining count. Nonetheless, I am as excited as I am interested in finding out the rest.

    I truly appreciate you taking the time to research and write all this information. It will certainly set a mark in future research.

    There is one small(ish) comment I feel compelled to make. I have accepted your idiosyncratic use of the female pronouns, but unfortunately I cannot get passed your cavalier use of the term “nonplussed.” The Oxford Dictionary (American or British, take your pick) define the word as “(of a person) surprised and confused so much that they are unsure how to react.”

    As such, the meaning of a sentence such as “Most in established institutional hacking environments like MIT were initially nonplussed by what’s come to be called the PC revolution,” is completely the opposite to the sense you imply.

    The use of “nonplussed” in current “web parlance” to mean something like “unfazed” or “unperturbed” typically comes from the assumption that the “non” prefix suggests a negative connotation. However, this is not the case. You can think of it as one of those web revisionist-neologisms such as the now-common use of “literally” as a superlative of “figuratively,” that (for whatever reasons) change the meaning of words and inadvertently distort the semantic context of so many extant literary works.

    I’m sorry for pointing this out, and I really do not wish to sound like a language pedant (well, perhaps a little), but it really jars me out of the narrative of such an otherwise fantastic, natural, and elegant prose style.

    Would you at least consider using a more appropriate term? :)

    Once again, thank you for the great historical account. It all seems not only brilliantly accurate and readily quotable, but absolutely interesting and fascinating.


    • Jimmy Maher

      February 8, 2017 at 1:25 pm

      Thank you!

      There is a counterargument to be made that languages are fluid things, and words do change meanings over time; witness the history of “disinterested” and “uninterested.” But of course that argument only goes so far, and I loathe the misuse of “literally,” which I seem to be hearing more and more from educated people who really ought to know better. So, words do have meanings, and we should respect their meanings. Somewhere between these two points of view ought to lie a happy medium, but we’ll all draw that line differently I suppose.

      To your specific point, though: I think I already have come around on “nonplussed.” I’ve used it a couple of times in recent articles, and I believe I’ve used it in the sense that you prefer. While I hugely appreciate your description of my prose in these early articles as “fantastic, natural, and elegant,” I do think that writing thousands of words every week, as I’ve done since starting this blog, has made me a much better writer now than I was then. There’s much that makes me cringe a bit in these early articles — perhaps even a misuse or two of “literally.” Of course, I’m sure I’ll be saying the same thing about my writing of today another five years down the road. Such is the way of things — and, I think, the way it ought to be.

      • DZ-Jay

        February 9, 2017 at 2:59 am

        Dear Mr. Maher,

        Thank you for the very thoughtful response (and for taking the time to responding at all). I appreciate all the work put into this blog, and I hope I didn’t sound like I was trying to put your efforts down.

        I’m still catching up on the entire series, now up to the chapter on Softporn (I’m reading an article here and there as I get a break from work and life), and I can’t wait to read more. This stuff is really fascinating! :)

        Perhaps you’ve already considered this before, but I would strongly urge you to compile all these stories into a comprehensive volume and submit it for print publishing. The history of video games in general, and of Interactive Fiction in particular, is indeed a fascinating subject; and your prose style and witty commentary on the state of affairs at the time makes it very interesting and approachable.



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