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Halt and Catch Fire Syllabus (ashleyblewer.com)
480 points by gammarator 4 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 171 comments

This is a superb set of resources for anyone interested in the history of computing in the 80s and 90s. I'd go so far as to say it's great even if you don't intend to watch the show (although you should!). I wish this had existed back when I was teaching history of technology.

One of the best decisions the show made was to set the series at a series of fictitious minor companies and startups struggling down there in the trenches of the computer revolution without ever quite making it big. This avoids the trap of teleology and gives you a sense of how things could easily have turned out differently. It is why the show is so much better as both computing history and drama than all those films about Apple or Steve Jobs and the rest that tediously rehash the same stories of the winners. (Although one of the main characters, Joe Macmillan, has some Jobs-like character features. I do not mean this as a compliment.)

I have never seen such an amazing and accurate depiction of how people deal with grief as what this show presents. Beyond the computing history aspects of it, which touch upon some esoteric but important epochs, the human drama really impressed me by season 4.

Who remembers the short-lived Lucasfilm project 'Habitat'? Accurately rendered in the show as the interactive social network.

I completely agree. For me, the zenith was season 3, but any season of HCF was the closer to catching on film what being in a startup is like than any other show I've seen.

I really liked the show for many of the things you mentioned. I recommend it every now and then to friends or coworkers because I haven't met a single person yet who's seen that show. Very underrated.

My only gripe was that it seemed in season one, they tried a bit too hard to add drama to the show to appeal to a broader audience that isn't that interested in the technical stuff. Especially Joe Macmillan just felt over the top and just not credible at times. They made up for it in season two though, adding a lot of back-story for him and making him just more consistent in general. But even then, season one is still the best imo.

I read somewhere that the network was trying to create a new Mad Men, which fits a lot with the way Joe McMillian is portrayed. Thank god they went the other way: The drama was much better with the more relatable characters (the two female leads especially), and the technological narrative ended up more interesting without a Don Draper-like messianic figure involved.

I usually don't really read about the shows I watch, I just go with it. So I saw it as Joe needing to get something out of his system, and he evolves after that. Though he never really stops being Joe. It worked for me.

> It is why the show is so much better as both computing history and drama than all those films about Apple or Steve Jobs [...]

Loved Halt & Catch Fire

Pirates of Silicon Valley was pretty great, no? Idk about its accuracy though.

Pirates was so great, entertaining, and generally informative if you knew nothing about the subject even though it wasn't totally accurate. But at the time, what other comedy, drama would you find about the history of the personal computer? There was literally nothing else like it out there and very little else like it since.

I was a teen who knew little about the history about personal computers when I first saw it. I had just gotten my Windows 95 machine, my first computer and was stoked cause I paid for a third of it with my own money from working odd jobs. My mom paid the rest.

Anyways, I found the subject matter engaging so I have a fond place for that movie.

The funniest thing about "Pirates" to me is how it was made at a time when it seemed Microsoft had "beaten" Apple and it showed Jobs learning to accept his defeat.

To be fair... Bill has won in the end by most metrics...

You could look at Joe as exploring how Steve Jobs could have turned out differently.

Or a Jobs wannabe in a world where Jobs and the Macintosh exist.

In this show, Jobs and the Macintosh do exist -- it's a key dramatic element of one of the episodes.

Also Wozniak and Apple. Netsape/Mozilla and the internet. Gates and Microsoft. This show really does bring it all to the table.

I didn't watch (yet) Halt and Catch Fire, but given your description, I think you would like Silicon Valley too. There the protagonist has a big idea but struggles to make it a real product. Also the jokes told there make it both really funny and interesting, because there's always something true about them.

Have watched both, very different shows but brilliant in their own way.

The first season of HCF in particular was spectacular (the others are still amazing but for a first season HCF smashed it out the park).

I completely agree. Seasons 2,3,4 were great, but the first one was amazing on how it portrayed the feel of the time, the struggle, everything. They could have stopped at season 1 and I wouldn't have been disappointed.

I DID stop at season 1... Just couldn't get into it after that

I suggest you to continue watching all others seasons if I can give you an advise :). That's right, to me the first serie is amazing, by the way the other ones aren't bad too. I appreciate in HCF the explanation of a company life where problems can happens in any time, fight between people and the risks and possibilities to fail

Same here but I might try again

The other seasons are good, you should persevere.

Agree. I've always wondered that if maybe I'd just been born 10 years earlier, if I might have been involved in some of this stuff instead of just a kid playing with the stuff they made. Watching it was a sort of reverse-vicarious experience.

I've probably said this before, but I was a computer engineer in Texas in the 80s and this show captures that culture perfectly.* I first learned "Halt and Catch Fire" as an obscure illegal instruction on the 6800 processor that would lock it up. When I heard about this show my first reaction was "How dare they title a show with a meme from an obscure part of my hindbrain! Guess I can't use that for a password any more."

*Well almost perfectly. I don't remember many engineers or coders being as attractive as the actors on this show.

Well almost perfectly. I don't remember many engineers or coders being as attractive as the actors on this show.

I've only been working in this field since about 1997 or so, so I can't speak to what things were like in the 80's. But I can say that I've seen more than a few software engineer / programmer types who were very attractive, or could be if they chose to dress / style themselves so as to play up that aspect.

Not sure if my perception is just "off" or if there was a point in time where this changed. Or maybe it's a geographic thing - I'm on the East Coast (NC specifically).

Still, the old stereotype of the unwashed, nacho and crumbs covered shirt, neckbearded, basement dwelling programmer guy does linger...

> *Well almost perfectly. I don't remember many engineers or coders being as attractive as the actors on this show.

This always amuses me about American-produced shows. Even the guy cast as 'background hobo #2' is a handsome person with token dirt and ragged clothes applied.

I worked for a startup and we had a programming intern in my shop who was a new mom who wanted to learn programming. She was also an ex model from Denmark or Belgium or somewhere. She was really pretty, prettier than the actors on Halt and Catch Fire, and got a ton of attention from the rest of the programmers who were almost all typical programmers. [0]

She was doing well as a programmer when the company folded.

Other than this one programmer, I’ve never seen any programmers or product managers or engineers as attractive as in this show.

[0] “In a book called Computer Power and Human Reason, a professor of computer science at MIT named Joseph Weizenbaum writes of a malady he calls “the compulsion to program.” He describes the afflicted as “bright young men of disheveled appearance, often with sunken, glowing eyes,” who play out “megalomaniacal fantasies of omnipotence” at computer consoles; they sit at their machines, he writes, “their arms tensed and waiting to fire their fingers, already poised to strike, at the buttons and keys on which their attention seems to be as riveted as a gambler’s on the rolling dice.” ― Tracy Kidder, The Soul of a New Machine -

This was always true for female actors, but up to about the late 1970s male actors - even leading ones - could have any kind of head on them ... Some wonderfully charismatic ugliness going on. I think the pendulum will swing back eventually. I hope.

Some of my favorite comments on HN are when old school programmers like you share old school stories from the trenches. Love it.

I love some of the old programmer stories. There is an in frequently updated Apple // podcast which can be kinda fun, which talks to some of the programmer from the time.


The strange thing is that the “instruction” Halt and Catch Fire originated in a joke System/360 “green card” (reference summary) from the 1960s, along with Rewind and Break Tape, Execute (or Punch) Operator, and many others I've long since forgotten. Reference is sometimes made to an undocumented Motorola 6800 instruction, but the term is from the Big Iron era, and has nothing to do with personal computing. It's really from the "Blinkenlichts" era, when people commonly put up cartoons in the machine room showing a floating-point adder as a snake in a birdbath.

By the way, Big Iron's abilities in the physical world were real. I occasionally operated a System/360 with 4 2311 disk drives, 7.5MB monsters with the form factor of washing machines. When running the IBM sort program, these clunkers were apt to move around the machine room.

Our CS department newsletter once had cartoons featuring snakes illustrating both adders and half-adders, the latter being the victim of an ax.

It only just occurred to me that Halt and Catch Fire didn't have a scene of a printer catching on fire, as best as I can remember. Or maybe it did and I just forgot? That would have been classic...

Nope, but there was the scene at the end of season one where Joe does something with fire (avoiding spoilers).

Completely off-topic reply:

You had replied to a comment of mine asking what I’d meant by “Google figured out hardware didn’t matter on the server” by 2000 and how that changed the internet to make Bill’s vision come true. I do not check this site often and found I could not reply, and there was no email on your profile, so I am replying here:

To keep it brief, Google was the first company to figure out server farms of cheap machines were cheaper and - counterintuitively - more reliable, than massive, powerful servers. Solaris, DEC and IBM would ring a bell to a lot of the sysadmins from that time. Once Google figured out you can decouple work from hardware, handle hardware failure in software, and drive utilization from pathetic levels (20% at most internet companies over a year) to high 80s for free, the modern internet got a huge shot in the arm. At night, you could run batch jobs. It was a beautiful monstrosity. If not for the work by some of the guys (including 6 or 7 of my friends) who went from DEC - ironically due to the dot com crash* - AWS or cloud computing would not be a thing.

* - another ironic twist: If the utilization problem was solved, a lot of these companies’ finances would have looked much much better to the point that the bubble burst would not have been nearly as devaststing.

> when people commonly put up cartoons in the machine room showing a floating-point adder as a snake in a birdbath.

I really want to see this, can't find it by googling though. Maybe you know where to find it?

The last time I saw that one was in the University of British Columbia 7044 machine room, circa 1969. It was part of an “Anatomy of a Computer” cartoon, with a number of other visual puns. The adder is the only one I remember. Have never seen it online, alas.

Interestingly, looking around for this cartoon led me to these two specimens showing adders in chip and circuit design: https://micro.magnet.fsu.edu/creatures/pages/fulladder.html https://micro.magnet.fsu.edu/creatures/pages/halfadder.html

I have watched all four seasons seven times.

This show is so good I don't recommend it to my friends because I'm not sure I could handle it if they didn't like it as much as myself.

If you haven't seen the show, watch season 1 episode 1. If you don't like it, this isn't your show. You don't have to invest 20 hours of your life 'to get to the good season'. It's all good right from the start.

I've watched the entire series twice and enjoyed how well it portrays the "typical" case of the industry/life -- the one where you aren't the 1-in-a-million breakout winner, but rather have to find enjoying in the game itself.

Personally I liked the first episode but all the relationship drama later in the season made me stop watching, it felt contrived.

Non-spoiler alert: you might just have to grit your teeth and hang on through the first few seconds, where the armadillo gets run over.

I am amazed people glide through life with skin so thin. It's not even real. What's to be offended about?

TV, music, movies, theater, and books are supposed to make you feel something when consuming them. What's not to understand?

> TV, music, movies, theater, and books are supposed to make you feel something when consuming them.

So we don't need a warning when they do. What's not to understand?

Sometimes those things are unpleasant. Sometimes those unpleasant things are not necessary to enjoy the production. Again, what's not to understand?

So you need a warning whenever art makes you feel something other than enjoyment. Now I understand.

I don’t think you do, given how I’ve broken it down to below ELI5 levels, and you’re still snarking at me, but, ok.

Additionally, you are quite wrong. I distinctly recall the first time I was ever literally moved to tears by music, and it was precisely when the choir sang their first note in A Survivor from Warsaw, op 46 by Arnold Schoenberg: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-TbFVYbDuVg

Since then, I have been touched by sadness, beauty, anger, awe, and many other emotions as a result of experiencing art.

I didn't quite like the first episode but show got build up so quickly to something really good. always last episodes of every season were too damn good.

I've watched it (all seasons) twice so far and definitely expect I'll watch again at some point. It's one of the few shows I've ever watched that I feel like was essentially perfect. Not too long, not too short, well written, interesting characters, just enough nostalgia, and so on.

*spoiler alert*







If I could criticize anything, it might be the death of one of the major characters. I mean, it was good drama, and definitely a heart-wrenching sequence. But almost too much so, if such a thing is possible in a drama.

I loved the first time I watched it. However, when I started watching it again, I could not - while I absolutely loved the show, it always left me a little sad for them..

I may have to try again..

This is one of the few shows where I've hated every main character at different times throughout the series. I just started my second time through and I'm interest to see if I feel the same.

Same here. I made it part of the way through season one a second time but lost my patience for most of the relationship drama. It was fine the first time through, so I don't think it was a poor choice to have it in the show, but it does reduce its rewatch value.

yeah it really is one of my favorite shows out there. really great

If you guys liked Halt and Catch Fire, I'd also like to recommend:

- Pirates of Silicon Valley (this largely follows Gates and Jobs): https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0168122/

- Micro Men (this is about the British tech scene in the 80s): https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00n5b92 https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1459467/

Also Valley of the Boom [0] by National Geographic focusing on Netscape, Pixelon, and a couple others.

And General Magic [1] - a documentary about the startup General Magic with interviews with early employees who went on to Apple, Google, etc

And Silicon Cowboys [2] - documentary about Compaq in the early days, pretty much the real story version of Season 1

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valley_of_the_Boom

[1] https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6849786/

[2] https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4938484/

If you liked Halt and Catch Fire and the music therein, make sure to check out the soundtrack, it's available on bandcamp[0].

I listen to it when I want ~medium to high focus when working, and sometimes to get me "in the mood" so to speak.

[0]: https://paulhaslinger.bandcamp.com/album/halt-and-catch-fire...

Speaking of music, while this show has so many amazing things going for it, one of the best is the intro sequence and the theme music. That puts it on rare footing with shows like Mad Men and Covert Affairs. I know Netflix puts this button on everything, but I never use the "Skip Intro" button on these series.

I had to look up the guy that actually designed it, and I realized they have pretty much made all the intro cinematics I adore from TV shows.

Westworld, American Gods, Man in the High Castle and Halt and Catch Fire.



Huh, really. I haven't gotten around to watching American Gods, and Westworld isn't my thing, but I also enjoyed the title sequence for The Man in the High Castle. It isn't one of the ones I'd watch every time, just because it's so chilling, but I do very much enjoy it. The show itself was incredible, of course, and also has a bit of a chilling feeling to it. It's a perfect fit.

Nice thing about the title sequence for The Man in the High Castle is that it doubles as an prologue in setting the story. Much nicer than having to read (or have narrated) a background story to get things started.

Halt and Catch Fire is the only show I ever watched where I watched the intro[0] for every episode. The beat is perfect with the animation. It being 30 seconds also helps.

[0]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yD_kCKiSkoI

One of the most underrated shows in the last decade. This show isn't supposed to be a narrative history of a computer company. This show is to encompass the vigor, innovation, power struggle, paradigm shift of the 80's and 90's of the computing revolution. I was just a kid when all of this began and grew up during this era. This show does a great job of showing the excitement during that time. Everyone knew back at that time something was brewing with technology and it seemed there was something new and exciting every month. It was also a battle for supremacy to see who was going to lead the revolution. A very fascinating part of tech history.

Great work and I am glad this show is building a cult following. I consider the later 3 seasons of the show as the third best TV series I have seen in the past decade (behind only True Detective S1 and Chernobyl). If you have been struggling with the first season, consider sticking with it!

I thought Season 1 was the best season.

Season one was dramatically better than the last three seasons, all of which were filled with puffery and style over substance. Cameron - core to the show - got more distant, vague and poorly constructed with each season. The first season was gritty, tense, down to the metal. The rest of the seasons were good, not great, and weakened as each season went by. The last season was nearly mailed-in as far as story goes. It's like the writers were zooming out season by season and by the last season everything was distant, like watching cardboard cutouts of the characters from a great distance.

I disagree. I loved Cameron's evolution, she really matured. And from season 2 onwards (maybe even after the first half of S01) they seemed to have a better grasp on who the characters were and what stories to tell. Cameron and Donna's relationship especially was simply beautifully told.

I agree, I felt like the first season was the most evocative of a different time, the early 80s office tech environment.

The second season felt like it had a more soap opera to it, so I stopped at the end of it. I got the sense from descriptions of the later seasons that this got worse. Found it odd the consensus where I looked was that the last two were the best and the 1st to be "tolerated".

Every season had more soap opera to it than substance. But that's to be expected because it's a fictional drama and not a documentary.

I don't agree that Cameron was "zoomed out" after the first season either. Her role in the 2nd season was bigger than the first. Frankly I like the way they written her in the later seasons because even from the first season she reminded of engineers who have more attitude than skill (and we've all worked with people like that!) so seeing her career largely wash out felt more authentic to how a character like her would have survived through those eras.

On balance though, I felt this show was largely overrated. It had some good content but it was waaaay over the top with the melodrama. Unfortunately geek drama rarely satisfies American audiences so they need arson, punch ups and adultery to weaved into the story line.

Season 2 had the best startup portrayal. House full of hackers and game fanatics. Fantastic energy. I even bought a shirt with the Mutiny logo.


I remember now I actually watched a bit of Season 3 and then quit, it wasn't Season 2 that made me quit per se. I did like Season 2 for its portrayal of BBSs, since I never did get in on that.

I enjoyed Season 1 and 4, but the entire series was fantastic drama and historically accurate.

The reason I enjoyed Season 4 so much was to see the arc of how individuals evolved over time, how they learned from their mistakes, got past failures, and enjoyed the ride.

Are the series technical or rather vague in that regard? If they are, how accurate are they?

Things happen around the technologies of the era, but the technologies are not the center of the show by any means.

It's a character study more like Mad Men meets Forest Gump in the silicon valley nascent tech startup era.

Personally I think it's better than Mad Men.

>Mad Men meets Forest Gump

This is a great description.

>silicon valley nascent tech startup era

Even better is that they start in Texas, and going to the up-and-coming Silicon Valley is one of the story lines.

> Even better is that they start in Texas

Which at the time was referred to as the "Silicon Prairie". I still remember my Dad working for Control Data and he travelled frequently back and forth between Minnesota and Texas. I also remember a lot of conversations my parents had first about moving to Texas and then later moving out to CA when SV really took off.

We never moved, but during those years when tech really took off, he was constantly being recruited by companies in the valley.

For TV/film, it's probably one of the most accurate that I've seen. There are some things that are obviously for drama and visual effect though.

Some examples (very low spoilers but you've been warned):



1. In one of the first episodes, a couple characters design up a circuit to step through the values of an EEPROM to read off the value of each address. They use a series of 8 LEDs and convert the binary value to decimal in their head and then write it down on paper. Even if you were going to do something very manual like that you would want to use a 7-segment LED and driver so you could at least just write down the hex value.

2. One of the characters writes some firmware in assembler, and other characters keep saying that their code is "beautiful" and "art".

3. Later on in the series, some of the characters run an online game company and run a distributed game server on networked IBM XTs. They don't actually say if they're using some custom OS or how the accomplished that, but that also isn't the point of those episodes either.

4. There are brief flashes of assembler, basic, and C on a computer screen and most of it seems to be at least slightly incorrect.

All of that being said, I would give it a B+ for technical accuracy - and an A for being an awesome show.

i found it very accurate technically if not historically. it doesn't really linger on the technical aspects though, it's very much just used as window dressing

I found it fairly believable, if not completely accurate, in both aspects. Most of the things in the show are things that actually happened in real life, just with the serial numbers filed off. For instance, Cardiff Electric is basically fake Compaq, Comet is basically fake Yahoo!, and Rover is like fake Google. There's even a reference to the Morris worm.

Sure, fake Google comes a little early in the timeline, and Mutiny doesn't exactly map to anything that's familiar to me, but it all feels like it could have happened. Verisimilitude is really what matters here, and they pull it all off to an absolute T.

On the technical aspects, I loved when Donna got to do her thing those couple of times and do data recovery on disks. I wish they had been able to give her a bigger role in the early part of the series, because her character really shines when allowed to.

And, we have to mention the set design. It's perfect, right down to the little touches, like Donna and Gordon's J.C. Penney TV, or the Yars' Revenge poster hanging up in the Mutiny frat house. Sometimes I literally watch the show just to look at the sets.

It is a bit hilarious that the main characters, often Cameron, end up inventing much of modern computing. Mutiny is not only an on-line game network, but includes a graphical chat room (proto-social networking), a Craigslist feature, and a BBS. But I do appreciate it for the sake of the show exploring as many of the aspects of those eras of early computing as possible. Even Joe's "working for an oil company" plotline in season 2 reminded me of the time Exxon got into computing:


As far as getting the window-dressing and feel of the time right, there's also Netflix's Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

Those aren't anachronisms, they actually existed in the 80s and 90s on private online networks.

Real-time chat? Compuserve's CB Simulator. Craigslist? Compuserve certainly had classified ads as I'm sure did most of the others, including BIX. Usenet/Bullet Boards for interest groups? Compuserve Interest Groups, and every other service had that as well. Online gaming was also available on most of the networks, but special shout-out to Air Warrior that ran on GEnie.

You could also purchase airline reservations via SABRE which was supported by Compuserve and GEnie, get news, stock quotes, etc.

And yes, most of those services started out buying timeshare cycles from the likes of oil, insurance, and banking companies during evenings and weekends.

BBS networks often had on-line games, that often served as "proto-social networking". Most of them certainly had forums to buy and sell. Many had clients with graphical capabilities.

They didn't exaggerate much there - it was a space with plenty of competition, to the point that for a lot of people the Internet seemed like a boring step down in capabilities for some time, with networks like AOL and Prodigy believing they could stem the tide and keep people walled in.

For my part, before I got internet access, I reinvented a bunch of that stuff myself, and worked on a graphical BBS client and capability for federation. And there's nothing unique in that - I know many others who also did, unaware of what existed, and without thinking we invented anything new, because they were small, incremental obvious steps from what we did know about.

It's simply a natural set of things that people wanted, and the limiting factor was not the ideas, but access to time, talent and capital and a willingness to go ahead and do it.

That's often how these things work. Things get independently reinvented all over the place. Not necessarily well, or fast enough etc.

And you'll note Cameron is not the only one to invent any of the things she does in the series either.

By “capability for federation,” do you mean something more than what FidoNet allowed?

Ability to establish a live packet network.

Yes, it was basically re-inventing IP for no good reason because lack of internet access meant lack of info about what already existed...

When I, a few years later, got an internet connection and started reading the relevant ISPs, it was pretty annoying to see what had already existed.

Interesting. So, basically, it sounds like you had some dial-out modems hooked up, and some kind of database of other BBS numbers, kind of like a routing table, except you basically offloaded the actual routing to the phone company? Then, you could call out to the other BBS and switch the user's display to show the external BBS rather than yours?

If so, that's an interesting idea, but it kind of sounds like a good way for your users to run your phone bill up rather than theirs, while possibly not even engaging with your BBS at all. (For those who aren't familiar, back in the BBS days, you had to actually pay for "long distance" phone calls. And, "long distance" often wasn't very far away.)

Do I have it right, or was it something different?

Not exactly. An actual packet network, so the connections would be multiplexed just as if you used an IP connection, and routed it at like over a dedicated network. The modem part is an implementation detail.

In terms of cost, it was normal at the time to charge per minute fees for services on the big online services, so enabling remote services multiplexed over a network like that would be an opportunity for BBS operators to federate into a bigger network and gain revenue by charging for services, and start out without having the traffic to justify a fixed line.

But obviously, just like the big online services, that model became unviable the moment the internet went mainstream.

Sure, it's kind of absurd that the same 4 people would be at the center of so many technological shifts, over a period of 20+ years. But, you really have to accept that as a conceit of the medium.

There are basically only two ways to construct a TV series that has any continuity to it whatsoever. You can either keep most of the main characters together for the entire series, and watch them grow and change, like most series do; or, you can do like American Horror Story does and just scrap everything and start anew every season or so. Some series don't care about continuity, like Seinfeld, so they fall outside the scope of this statement, but, the majority of TV series will be one or the other of these.

And, there's nothing really wrong with this construction, either. Like I said, it's just something you have to accept, kind of like how every TV home or apartment is absolutely massive compared to what real people live in, or how people are able to comfortably fly on airplanes without squishing themselves into the seats or their heads being within inches or less of the roof of the cabin. Or the fact that if anybody coughs on TV, they're usually deathly ill.

I'll have to check out Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, though. I've been putting off watching it for some reason -- maybe because for most of 2020, I felt like I was living in a Black Mirror episode.

Speaking of Netflix series that really get the time period correct, Stranger Things is 100% exactly like what it was like to be a kid in the 80s. Starting from the bowl haircut on Will, right on down to every last detail of the mall from season 3, and battling the Demogorgon in a friend's basement. Absolute 10/10 set design, and I never noticed a single anachronism.

Mutiny felt to me like it was PlayNet or Quantum Link, the company that eventually became AOL.

As others have also mentioned, the biggest sin the show commits is having the main characters invent so much. It's certainly not unknown for a person or a group that innovate in multiple fields but for them to innovate in so many was a bit of a stretch but one that was acceptable for storytelling purposes.

An alternate could have been to fade characters in and out over the seasons. Joe and Gordon are the stars of the PC-clone season, with Cameron and Donna playing supporting roles. In the Online Services season, Cameron and Donna step forward while Joe and Gordon become secondary characters and characters such as Yo-Yo and Tom increase their presence. Season three could have had Cameron and Donna fall back to secondary characters while Yo-Yo and Tom became the main characters in creating a what would essentially be something like Sierra Online or Electronic Arts. Each season could have introduced a new period of tech and introduced new minor characters that would be the center of the next season. For continuity, the common thread in all of the companies could have been Boz, moving from company to company in a sales and business development role.

This way the show could have continued on though to present day and even taken a branch here and there during periods of higher than typical innovation. The big downside is that you end up rotating out some very talented actors. All of the main cast of the show as filmed were really good and it would have been a shame to lose that but the storytelling would have been better for it.

Your approach might work for the tech-oriented audience members, but the character development and ongoing drama is what makes the show appealing to people who don't care about the tech. It's part of what makes the show brilliant.

I don't think it is. Most popular, groundbreaking technology isn't the first version of itself. Eg, I think of this profile of Tony West: https://www.wired.com/2000/12/soul/

Tony West is the protagonist of The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder, the account of Data General creating a new microcomputer in the 80s. The first season of H&CF borrows heavily from it. He was ahead of the curve on a lot of things - laser printers, computers, laptops, thin clients...but never had the ability to bring it all to market in a meaningful way.

The tech industry is full of people like this - people that can build the future but not sell it. I didn't find it unrealistic.

The way I look at it is that tech frequently has people inventing the same approach over and over. So this actually happens, just it’s not always the version that takes off.

Sometimes I shrug when someone says “I invented Facebook in 1990.” But sometimes that happens, although people don’t normally talk about it in public.

I’ve worked with co-workers who “invented” aspect oriented programming, Jenkins, ajax, nosql sui generis. A few years later in each case I remember thinking “oh yeah this is what John Doe” was building.

So I just chalked this up to people in this company “inventing” mobile computers, dial-up communities, and portals at the same time as compaq, prodigy, and yahoo.

I think that makes sense. This is a story about people who are reasonably successful but they keep never making it truly big.

If anything, having a big breakout success is so rare that "almost succeeding" many times is a lot more common.

It sucks - e.g. I was part of building a tablet years before the iPad (we were not first, either, and not the last pre-Apple attempt) - but after a couple like that you get used to it and learn from what the successful attempt did different instead of being annoyed at it.

And then you try again with something else.

Arguably, Apple also built a tablet years before the iPad: the Newton MessagePad in 1993.

There were a lot of similar pen-based PDAs and tablet PCs released around the same time as the Newton. Though I think all of them were as commercially unsuccessful as the Newton. E.g. the Amstrad PenPad. The Newton was not really something people compared to, though - it got compared more to PalmPilot and similar PDAs. It makes sense to put it in the mix of precursors, by all means, but at the time people didn't really draw that parallel.

The "second generation" tablets were very much treated as a separate category from Newton, PalmPilot, PenPad etc. on one hand, and Tablet PCs on the other hand, in that they tended to be built around internet connectivity and browsers as more important even that portability (you were expected to use them around home or the office), and with media consumption as an essential element. The marketing assumption was that people would have a PDA for work, and tablets would be media devices that were largely separate things.

The second generation devices, including ours, and Ericssons, and a number of others, flawed in that they were still too low res (though much better than the "first generation" like the PenPad or Newton), too expensive, and too slow to be attractive for anything but techie early adopters, and with abysmal battery lifetime which meant they couldn't compete with the PDAs, and you were basically chained to home. This was also before wifi was widespread, and various alternatives were still competing for the wireless space - e.g. ours had a data extension to DECT.

Apple's greatest stroke of genius with respect to the iPhone and iPad wasn't primarily technical, but to recognise that it was too early and the hardware wasn't up to it, and wait instead of releasing a sub-par product. "Everyone else" launched tablets as the next step after PDAs around '99-'05 or so, didn't get any traction, and gave up or failed and then a lot of us subsequently laughed at Apple, because "everyone knew" something like the iPhone even wouldn't work.

That's not to say I assume we'd have competed if we'd waited, but we'd at least had a much better shot. There was a very distinct failure to understand the gap between the quality that was exciting to a tech audience vs. what would be exciting to a wider market... That was a very useful lesson.

Note that the 1987-1990 Newton was a lot closer to the iPad before it was completely redesigned:


Halt and Catch Fire is an excellent show. I wish Apple would make a similar show about the first Macintosh. There’s plenty of material on folklore.org for a good story.

Do you trust Apple to make such a show without making it a hagiography?

A hackiography, surely.

Have you watched the (pretty good) documentary "General Magic"? If features a lot of the same people than folklore.org, to the point one could consider it an Apple "side story", though there are also future Googlers and people who built Android.

Here's the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTdyb-RWNKo

I found it interesting. There is a bit of hagiography going on, though (and note the trailer seems way more antagonistic towards Sculley than the documentary actually is.)

One thing I found striking is that none of these people seem to need or care about money. They say so explicitly, "we didn't care about the money", and that it was all about the vision and passion. Yet somehow they managed to remain clothed and well fed. If that's not the definition of privilege, I don't know what is!

Folklore.org is such a wonderful read, I'd love to see a faithful TV adaptation.

I also really enjoyed Accidental Empires (which was later made into a documentary, Triumph of the Nerds).

First time I'm hearing about it. According to Wikipedia the show is well loved but just didn't get much viewership. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halt_and_Catch_Fire_(TV_series...

It's really great and one of the rare ones that's great until the end, and it ends purposefully and well.

My only comment about it is the first handful of episodes are the weakest. After the first half of the first season they tone down the Joe MacMillan character to be less of a kind of over the top trope anti-hero and more of a real character with depth and things get better. They're not bad early on, but you'd probably notice that and it's worth watching anyway.

I totally agree with this, and it marks the first series for me a bit. The setting and concept are great, but Joe is a pastiche and until they calm his character down he's not very believable. He gets too much screen time and the expense of other, better characters. As you say, it's not bad, just it hasn't grown into itself. The last series is both excellent and poignant. The group always being just a bit too early with their ideas creates a sense of innovation but it's also tinged with failure which I think really works.

>Joe is a pastiche and until they calm his character down he's not very believable

Whether is was intentional or not, I think the way Joe moves into a more "believable" role worked well from a character development standpoint. Like, the cookie-cutter sales person isn't going to fly in SV (or Texas), and he was fooling himself anyway.

Thanks for the info about the Joe MacMillan character. I watched a few episodes of the first season and could not get past him. His character just rubbed me the wrong way. I'll give the show another try.

Wonder if the show was an experiment in hyperfocused advertising delivery. What would it be worth to certain advertisers to know that Steve Woznick and a dozen other billionaire tech geeks would see their ads? The viewership numbers weren't great and I was happily surprised to see it renewed each season, wondering how AMC could justify the budget for something with such low viewership. But maybe the rates they charged advertisers were high due to the show being narrowly targeted to a particular demographic that's wealthy. The rest of us got to come along on the ride mostly for free. I seem to remember the show having more advertisements for luxury goods than usual for an AMC show.

It is a captivating show but after watching the first series I had to give up halfway through the second. Modern TV shows are cool but take too much, I wish I could watch the compressed version. After the first series the tropes become quite unpredictable and things start taking turns just because they need filler.

I grew up in the 80s and this show brought back some memories and filled in some gaps. I'd definitely recommend the first series.

I'll give an opposite impression. I thought the first season was sort of a paint by numbers Mad Men rip off focused on tech rather than adverting. S2 gets its own story that is very enjoyable.

You're pretty much spot on, by the writers own admission.

At first, "What matters?" was a question the show's creators themselves couldn't answer. When Cantwell and Chris Rogers wrote the pilot for Halt and Catch Fire, they had little in mind but jumping on board one of the shows they already liked. "We're both in our early 30s, so the shows that made us wanna do this were the great 'difficult men' shows: The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Wire," Rogers says. "We wrote the pilot in a way that was set up to ape them: Joe McMillan is a traditional antihero, and the world is organized around him in that way." But when the pilot was bought by AMC for production, rather than simply used as a staffing script to land "The Chrises" (as Halt's cast and crew universally call them) in a writers' room for a preexisting series, things changed. "As we got in there and started doing it, we had a writers' groove. We figured out what was our voice, as opposed to the voice that felt like it was emulating the shows we liked."


In many ways it's the opposite of what I feel like happens to most shows where they have extensively planned and worked on their first season because it's a multi-year effort in the making and then when they get renewed (if they get renewed) they have to figure out where to take it in a fraction of a time that they'd never really planned for.

Honestly, I read the entire first season as a self aware meta-commentary on how the show was supposed to take Mad Men's place in the AMC lineup but was merely a shallow facsimile.

In addition, I see Mad Men's episode "The Monolith", about a computer being installed in the office, as a comment on the (at that point) upcoming Halt and Catch Fire series.

I felt similarly and gave up on it after a while, but your comment is making me reconsider

Highly recommend continuing to watch it, in my mind it really only improves over the course of the four seasons, though I'm sure there were some ups and downs. The last couple of episodes of the final season did strike me as being bizarrely out of touch technologically (for the show, which generally got things pretty close to right), but I figured the writers were spending more time wrapping up the human elements of the show than focusing on getting the technology right.

Thanks, I'll give it a try next time I'm binging.

Highly recommend watching it all the way thru. I think it is great drama, but to deeply appreciate it, you have to be in the industry or know about it -- to realize how accurate the show is, and that is a smaller market of viewers.

And w/r/t accuracy, I dont mean technical accuracy but rather the characters types, the ups-and-downs of startups, the failures, etc.

It got just about the running time it needed. Not too short, not too long. In that respect it's a success.

fantastic show. For people who like the 80s/90s tech setting as well as just a plain good drama.

There’s a quote [0] by Lee Pace in the last season that I remember as both the best description of the Internet as well as explains my love in the mid 90s when I first started using the web... “ When I was five, my mother took me to the city. And we went through the Holland Tunnel, and it was basic. Concrete and steel. But it was also my excitement sitting in the backseat, wondering when it was going to be our turn to emerge. It was the explosion of sunlight. And when we exited the tunnel, all of Manhattan was laid out before us. And that was the best part of the trip the amazing possibility to be able to go anywhere within something that is magnificent and never-ending. This is the first Web browser,”

I love this show so much. I worked for a bunch of misses and I like seeing a description of the times that were so important, but not told by the winners.

[0] https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5707526/characters/nm1195855

I absolutely love this "vintage" web design. The author's page[1] is very impressive and I love the atheistic. Wish more creative people in the industry would take design risks like this.

[1] https://ashleyblewer.com/

thank you so much!! CSS is so good these days, thanks to the dedicated and hard work of standards authors. I recommend that anyone who has been driven into a blind rage trying to do something simple like center divs give CSS another shot now that we have CSS Grid.

Then I recommend checking out the Indie web webring https://indieweb.org/webring

I can't seem to stream this in my country, and the entire series is not available on physical media.

Ten years ago, I would have been able to buy this show on physical media from abroad. Now, if no streaming provider purchased the television show rights, I can't get it. And there's not enough purchasing power to produce a physical version of it. Isn't this globalization in reverse?

For the record: I live in Norway. Please let me know if there is any way to see the series.

Looks like only the first two seasons have been published on physical media so you're stuck with less than legal methods of watching it.

While there were interesting things about the show, like how Joe manipulated Gordon and others much like many stories of how Steve Jobs acted, there were just so many inaccuracies that annoyed the hell out of me. For example, the C64s were shown to have C:> prompts like DOS machines, probably because the set designers thought that all "old" computers worked that way and were too young to actually know the era.

My favorite is at some point in the last season they show a 286 booting up with more than 16mb RAM (the real world maximum that CPU supports). I can't help but think this is an intentional easter egg.

If you enjoy this series I really recommend reading The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. It's 40 years old but still the best book I have ever read about what motivates engineers (not entrepeneurs - there are tons of books about that - but rank-and-file engineers).

Actually, the first season of H&CF cribs a lot from the book (from the overall plot to a few very specific anecdotes).

im happy this is getting more attention and a discussion now, i looked at it friday night and it had no discussion or upvotes just bad timing i guess but i was blown away by how well thought out and executed the authors work is, thank you for bringing it to others' attention. i hope they get some use out of it, i definitely got inspiration from it

Am I the only one who doesn't like the show? I have seen everything upto S4E3 (or somewhere around that), and I must say its just horrible people with very few redeeming qualities. Its a difficult men show (yes Cameron is also a difficult Man), and I get that those are popular with people. But every other show like that that I actually like is more... fun. This one is just grim and dark and unrelenting in its difficult men tropes.

It's definitely a prestige melodrama which makes it maudlin. One could recommend HBO's Silicon Valley as an antidote, but that's a comedy with cynical bittersweet tones. Perhaps one day someone will make a tech industry drama that's light and optimistic.

Its not just that, the series feels disingenuous. Like nothing can go right for the main characters, ever. Whenever they achieve something, they have to be knocked down. Never once in the series did anyone have a moment of happiness which is not punished. Like, as soon as you get your exit money, BAM brain problems! Successfully convert a idle mainframe into a time share business, NOPE it will be stolen from you.

I feel like they are conflating sadness with grit and unnecessarily concentrating only on the sad/difficult parts. As a counter example, look at breaking bad or better call saul. Breaking Bad is perhaps the most successful prestige show since Sopranos (I think it might be even more successful if only looked at commercially). But the show has fun with its universe. Even The Wire, which is a show about everything that can go wrong with the city has moment which feel human and are not sad/difficult.

Yeah, I'm definitely not a fan of the ways they put them through the wringer- Gordon's health issues were a particular excessive twist of the knife. Interestingly enough, that description sort of describes Silicon Valley's trajectory for its protagonists as well. Could it just be that showrunners don't know what to do with their characters once they find success, especially in the potentially extremely lucrative world of tech?

Amusingly enough, I remember this 2015 article comparing the two, as well as Douglas Coupland’s novel Microserfs, when both shows were still on their early seasons:


I think you have something there, but I don't think its about knowing what to do its about being interested in telling that story. I feel like it takes a lot of skill to write a story about a wealthy/successful person and prevent the audience from going "boo-hooo, poor you in your mansion". But its not like it can't be done, in fact I would have to plug both Breaking Bad and The Wire here. Both the shows go beyond the point where the initial characters achieved success in what they wanted to do. Both shows did it by expanding their universe of characters and topics. BB added more dangerous men Heisenberg can go against and The Wire started looking at the same problem from several angles (political, financial, etc). The last season even shows what a successful drug lord does.

I don't like silicon valley either, and its precisely the same issue. They are laser focused on some characters and thus suffer from it.

Better Call Saul does exactly the same thing as you describe though. That show is relentless in knocking Saul down despite all his efforts to better his fortunes. But sometimes that's how life is.

>Better Call Saul does exactly the same thing as you describe though.

Breaking Bad does as well. What goes right for Walt? He loses everything. Maybe I'm missing something.

Its not about the end. Its about the journey. The way its done in HACF seems brutal. Like I can't smile at any given moment. [EDIT: in Breaking Bad] the mishaps do not feel immediate, don't feel like a punishment. There are real moments of victory, which are expanded and deliberated upon. In Halt and catch fire I feel like the makers are afraid of their characters being happier than a day.

The show started off great in the first season but then it became harder to believe as it went on that a rag tag group of people were at the almost at the forefront of all these technological revolutions in computers.

I get that it's fiction but still .... you gotta keep it somewhat believable.

It would've been better if, much like Forrest Gump, all these revolutions happened in the background but they weren't necessarily at the forefront of them.

Back in the 80's my brother and I would type in programs from a computer magazine called "Compute's Gazette" which was mainly for the Commodore 64. I remember typing in a variant of code that was similar to assembly (they coined it MLX), and included checksums at the end of each line to make sure we typed it in correctly. We spent many hours typing it in and playing these "lite" games.



I have to admit I really miss the days of being able to type in a game from a book (meh.... not really).

I remember doing this from Byte magazine, or at least I think I do.

I didn’t have a hard drive so I would spend all day typing in the program, run it and lose it when the computer shut down. I remember being mad when my sibling would turn off the computer unexpectedly.

> typing in a variant of code that was similar to assembly

And in case you didn't have a disk drive, the magazine included the BASIC source code listing of the program that you had to type _those_ programs into.

That this show never had a single Emmy nomination is an absolute crime.

The ensemble cast was phenomenal. They delivered believable, vulnerable, and often completely frustrating performances.

I'm a sucker for period character-driven drama and there are few shows that do it as well as HACF did.

I was drawn in by Lee Pace and my extreme nostalgia for the early days of PC computing. I stayed because I fell in love with the characters.

You can pick apart the technical side of it all day(jwz did) but you would entirely be missing the point, at least in my opinion.


So weird. Had just finished s3e4 for the second time through when I saw this.

The world is full of coincidences.

I loved this show. It made me wish I had gotten into tech much earlier!

Loved the show, and this website looks awesome and seems to contain a massive wealth of information on computing history, bookmarked! Probably my only beef with this show is when he dumps the rom using switches and LEDs, sure you could do that, but you could also be reasonable, and hook it up to a computer and write a lil program to dump it, when you're that smart anyway..

I liked the first season a lot but got kind of annoyed when they started just having the main characters invent basically everything from tech history.

That being said, I had a good time watching with my mom who is also in technology, and getting her insights on the references and depiction of 80s tech. She thought it was/is very well done.

Because nobody has yet mentioned anything related to the title for this series, here's the explanation: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halt_and_Catch_Fire_(computing...

Really great set of resources! Bookmarked! Also a great companion to rewatch the series!

BTW, does anynone know where I could buy the complete series on bluray or dvd?

I loved watching the show on TV at its time, but cannot find all the seasons to buy and rewatch.

This is well done for sure, and I love HACF but already watched live and rewatched so not going to go back, but it's nice to connect alot of the materials and background that came up while we were all watching the show

Very nice. Built on Jekyll, apparently: https://github.com/ablwr/halt-and-catch-fire-syllabus

Ya! Although extreeeeeemely kludgy, I did so many hacky things -- definitely could not be used as a template for anything else and is a bit weird/embarrassing. I'll pretend it's an homage to the 90s web even though it's actually just laziness. ;)

I initially started with GatsbyJS/React, but it was stopping me from getting to what I needed to do (CSS + content). So even though I was going to start with full JS, it ended up JS-free (I don't use any trackers), which also saved me from having to jump through the right hoops to be more accessibility-friendly!

Great show, neat idea!


A major component of the show however is the struggle for women to be seen as equals to men in the tech realm. Gordon's wife spends most of the first season as a homemaker despite being just as capable of an engineer as him. Cameron is looked down on as being a subpar engineer because of her gender multiple times throughout the series.

Felt more "sign of the times" to me than specific to the tech world. It's when women were entering the workplace in mass. Cameron was respected amongst peers. She was looked down on because of her other personality traits (laziness, unfocused, gamer, rebellious, etc) but she would pull an all-nighter and develop some massive solution to a problem that other engineers had spent weeks on right before crunch time. If she had helped ahead of time or worked well with others, it would have made for crap TV but would have helped her if it was the real world.

It's been a few years but that's how I remember it.

My recollection was that Gordon's wife (why don't we just call her Donna?) was the competent one. Gordon was a bit of a bumbling fool, wasn't he?

Gordon and Donna were both excellent engineers. However whereas Gordon got a decent job as an engineer without much effort (assumed anyway as we begin the show with him already working as one) the same is not true for Donna who is 'stuck' in a more admin role being somewhat ignored by her boss and at times belittled clearly because she is female.

The main difference between Gordon and Donna is that she has a lot more 'drive' than he. Gordon was happy to settle as being 'just an engineer' hacking away on circuit boards and such whereas Donna always dreamed of more which we see with her character development over the seasons into business management and investment.

There are a few moments where Donna shows more 'outside the box' thinking in solving a problem such as space saving in the laptop they are designing for Cardiff, however I don't think that is enough to say she was superior to Gordon. I always saw them as equals in terms of technical ability but with Donna having ideas far beyond being an engineer whereas Gordon had that 'kid at heart' personality and would quickly lose interest in the higher level managerial aspects. Cameron's character was very similar to Gordon in that respect.

Breaking it down the four main characters have some very interesting overlap. Even Joe had good technical ability but was clearly the more 'visionary' character who used his technical understanding to try new things and push forward into new waters.

...Gordon was happy to settle as being 'just an engineer' hacking away on circuit boards and such whereas...

hmm, not exactly. Much earlier, Gordon had 'followed' his dream and done something which ended up not working out (think of it like starting a startup and it folded). That initiative basically left them broke and they had to depend on Donna's parents or something like that. So Donna/Gordon had an agreement that he would get a 'safe' job

True they tried some kind of startup with the Symphonic that failed. The failure of the Symphonic originally put Donna off working on the Giant at Cardiff but she quickly came around. After that thought Donna seemed the more driven of the two.

I guess it is kind of unfair of me to say Gordon "settled" as he was clearly still quite driven (getting involved with Joe's mainframe project, ARPANET/NSFNET, CalNect etc.) but his health issues forced him to prioritise his health and work/life balance.

Without a deep analysis into each character I guess I will leave it that my summation of Donna and Gordon leaves me feeling Donna was the more driven of the two however as Gordon's life was cut short it is impossible to really say. Donna had the opportunity to do so much more whereas Gordon did not both because of his health issues and ultimately his early passing.

And all of this has made me realise just how involved I got with the characters in this show. I am talking about them as if they were real people which is a little strange when I think about it but I think speaks volumes about just how great the show was :)

He was portrayed as a frustrated but talented hardware engineer who undermined himself quite a bit, but in a sympathetic way.

Yes, you're right, I should have called her by her name. It slipped my memory and I was not feeling motivated to search for it. Given the contributions she has in the show she is a person of her own beyond being "Gordon's Wife".

I wouldn't say that Gordon was a fool, since that would mean he was stupid. I don't think anyone on the show was stupid. He was constrained by his fears and insecurities. That was the major driver in many of the mistakes he made over the show.

Donna is presented as quite gifted and competent pretty much all the time, yes, but to say that Gordon isn't is a bit of an oversimplification.

Donna's genius is tempered and tamed; she spends most of season 1 being "The Adult" because she has to. Gordon is indeed presented as struggling both with being a doormat and lacking inspiration at times, even being saved by Donna's inspiration in some cases, but he more than makes up for it over time in the show. They don't stop (mostly unfairly) shitting on him throughout until maybe season 3 or thereabouts, however.

gordon was also an excellent engineer, although he had some personal lapses

Gordon was a great character in S1. Then they ruined him unnecessarily.

You are right, although Cameron is also considered a genius by her peers multiple times.

Have you seen the show? Because the female characters, especially after S1, are the primary drivers of the series.

Exactly. But in this syllabus they are the victims of the evil men.

I think this was a positive take trying to say how it could have been or should have been.

The reality I witnessed was that all these positions were held by men, usually white and Asian.

So the series paints a rosey picture where there is struggle for gender parity. This seems really rare and so the story isn’t realistic in this sense.

But this is part of the story and the characters I think are unique fiction rather than trying to be representative.

Of course there were many awesome female programmers and engineers, just they were by far rarer than their male counterparts. Thus there’s Jobs+Woz, Gates+Allen, Brin+Page and no MacMillan+Howe.

Classifying awesome engineer = founding engineer of company seems to be a category error. It might be the case that female engineers are even more absent using this metric due to biases in venture capital and different risk taking preferences.

It might be. I can only speak from my experiences and what I know directly having worked with the few founders and companies I worked with. I would love to know the answer, but I think this is one of those contrafactuals that I’ll never know and don’t have much time to postulate.

Why do you think this is propaganda?

If nothing else, it's wildly out of place considering the source material.

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