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Ask HN: What story from the PDP-8 era would make a good script?
46 points by jtode on Nov 21, 2022 | hide | past | favorite | 65 comments
I mess around with writing sometimes and I was just gazing at some pics of a PDP-8 - so gorgeous, and clearly the real world inspiration for all the "panel of blinking lights" computers we watched in 70s-80s SF.

Got me wondering - we've had way too many shows now dealing with modern digital culture (hello Silicon Valley). There's been some attempts to tell stories from the early days of microcomputers (Halt And Catch Fire for instance), and that makes sense, given that those are the machines that many GenX played with at home or at school.

But Hollywood's version of Silicon Valley - Silvercon Valley? - has yet to celebrate the Minicomputer and Mainframe eras in a real way. They have done a bit of deep diving into the 50s, but only in the form of standard issue Genius Porn where the computer operators who broke wartime codes were like Harry Potter characters or something, with modern social causes overlaid as a historical corrective of sorts, and I somewhat doubt that Turing is any happier for the fact that the world no longer cares that he was gay, but remains unable to grasp the awesome stuff he did do. He's not here for it.

Grim thoughts aside, these PDP-8s and the people who worked with them daily deserve a story, complete with looooots of pornographic shots of the machines themselves. Love stories that begin by someone bumping their true love's pile of punchcards into a game of '52 pickup that ends with lurid shots of stacks of cards being sucked into the reader.

Anyways, the best story would heroize someone real from the era. I know a lot of stories but cannot really find the one that really deserves someone having a go at making it into a script set in that gorgeous era of earthtoned data.

What do you think, HN?

Has anyone read The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder? Could this be made into a movie?

"The Soul of a New Machine is a non-fiction book written by Tracy Kidder and published in 1981. It chronicles the experiences of a computer engineering team racing to design a next-generation computer at a blistering pace under tremendous pressure. The machine was launched in 1980 as the Data General Eclipse MV/8000.[1]

The book, whose author was described by the New York Times as having "elevated it to a high level of narrative art"[2] is "about real people working on a real computer for a real company,"[3] and it won the 1982 National Book Award for Nonfiction[4] and a Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction."


It's not a focus of "the book" as it was referred to when I was at DG. But Ed de Castro was the initial designer of the PDP-8 before he went on to co-found Data General.

For anyone interest in that book, this is an interesting internal year-in-the-life style book that was published a few years later. https://archive.org/details/year-in-dev

But, yeah, Soul of a New Machine is still relevant (even if I'm biased because I knew a lot of the people involved). Showstopper about Windows NT is another good one in a similar vein.

You certainly could make a film. Not sure to what degree even geeks (especially younger ones) would connect. Times were pretty different.

(I think one person who is in the book is still at the "same" company by way of EMC and Dell.)

A really good read, and actually quite instructive. I remember when they want to move the team from (I think) Massachusetts to North Carolina the response from some team members wasn't positive, I remember one commented "the news on the radio is about hog prices and you can't buy the New York Times".

Yeah. DG was HQd in Massachusetts--about an hour west of Boston. It was a "Route 128" minicomputer company but actually just off 495.

I'm not sure what was down in NC at the time but when I joined a few years later there was a manufacturing plant in Apex and, at some point, software development in Research Triangle Park. A lot of the later Unix development as well as at least databases was in RTP.

Yeah, at the time I was helping to design the CPU of a new mainframe, and everyone in the department read it excitedly because it resonated with us all.

I feel like it was serialized in some industry magazine before the book itself came out, but I may be misremembering.

It's an excellent book for sure, on many levels. I'm not convinced it could be turned into a _modern_ movie with enough interest to a general audience though.

Well, as a big fan of Michael Lewis, I never would have thought Moneyball and The Big Short would make good movies, but here we are. Good scriptwriters are wizards.

Screenwriting for The Big Short was magic. There were probably still too many complicated threads to keep straight but a really good cut on the source material for film.

The key to a good movie is characters and relationships. It's been a few years since I read the book (and it is a great book), but I think there are characters galore and the opportunity to pump up relationships. It could maybe work.

Yeah, if anyone could do it, Sorkin could.

It would require a very good screenwriter. Aaron Sorkin level.

I read this when I was a young teenager and found it very enjoyable (even though I didn't understand some of it at the time.) I've been thinking of rereading it.

thanks for the tip, added to the list. :>

I love the PDP-8, to the extent that, 50 years since my last contact with it, I still remember that HALT was octal 7402. But the blinkenlights in the movies came from mainframes, with row after row of flashing lights.

There's a story about the IBM System/360 Model 75. The engineers who designed the Model 65 put the registers on roller blinds, so that one row of flashing lights could display one of several different registers. The plan was to do the same for the much-faster Model 75. Senior management is said to have nixed that: if the machine costs 3 times as much as the 65, it must have 3 times as many lights. So the 75 lost its roller blinds.

Blinkenlights go all the way back to ENIAC, where ping-pong balls were used to make them more prominent.

> I still remember that HALT was octal 7402

So do I.

Since someone already mentioned The Soul of a New Machine, I'll add that The Cuckoo's Egg by Cliff Stoll might make a pretty good movie.

You may know that that was made into a 1990 PBS Nova episode, “The KGB, the Computer, and Me”, starring Cliff Stoll himself.

Here's a random cool bit of Cliff Stoll trivia I didn't know that I just stumbled across on wikipedia:

> He earned a B.S. in Astronomy in 1973 from the University at Buffalo (SUNY). While studying for his undergraduate degree at SUNY Buffalo, Stoll worked in the university's electronic music laboratory and was mentored by Robert Moog.


Wow, watching that made me realize that recreating that era might actually be pretty hard -- all those rooms of computer hardware that just don't exist anymore. Electro-mechanical phone switches? Who has that kind of stuff just lying around? (I mean, aside from Look Mum No Computer and Hainbach.)

The Cuckoo's egg is certainly a candidate for a reboot - a factual one, not with Hollywood 'based on a true story BS'. There's enough material for a decent Netflix movie I would have thought.

I didn't know that, actually. Thanks.

I was about to mention that! Later than the time period OP mentioned, but a fascinating story about 80s-era cybersecurity.

"Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age" is the riveting story of the legendary Xerox PARC a collection of eccentric young inventors brought together by Xerox Corporation at a facility in Palo Alto, California, during the mind-blowing intellectual ferment of the seventies and eighties. https://dl.acm.org/doi/book/10.5555/518513

Also "Where Wizards Stay Up Late" would give a dozen great movies.

“UNIX: A History and a Memoir” by Kernighan is a really fun read. Just published a few years ago as well.


You know what I'd really like to see?

The Story Of C, by Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze.

Kurtwood Smith plays old Kernighan. Peter Boyle or Christopher Lloyd as old Ritchie.

I can't wait till I can type that into an AI prompt.

PDP-8 computers have appeared in several movies, starting with Three Days of the Condor in 1975. Starring the Computer has a complete list. [1]

[1] https://www.starringthecomputer.com/computers.html#DEC

It's not really the exact era you're thinking of, but I think AMC's Halt and Catch Fire is really what you're after here. The first season, about the creation of a new PC, seems to more or less fit the timeframe and aesthetic. The show's intro certainly has a strong 80's cyberpunk/blinkenlights vibe. At one point, IIRC, there are even actual blinkenlights.

HaCF was a very good (if a bit uneven) TV series. I totally thought S1 was going to go off in a different direction, maybe creating something like the Mac rather than a PC clone though. The depiction of Comdex of the era was fantastic.

To me it was so obvious they were supposed to be Compaq that S1 was pretty clear.

There was definitely the Silicon Prairie angle but there was at least the ambition to do something radically different. Compaq was obviously a great success (for a time) but really as a business success as opposed to exciting engineering.

Clean-room engineering a compatible BIOS?

Reverse-engineering the unknown bits of hardware?

Troubleshooting compatibility bugs in common software packages and fixing them in hardware?

Putting a PC into a luggable case with a small display and carry handle?

All that was exciting engineering!

HaCF did spice the engineering up from reality by using an LCD screen instead of a CRT. I don't think contemporary LCDs were up to the task, but I could be wrong.

Luggable microcomputers were not new at this point, both Osborne and Kaypro had z80 CP/M systems that were luggable.

Compaq definitely had the most compatible BIOS until Phoenix released theirs for OEMs to use (AMI was probably more popular in the 80s, but was a relative late-comer).

Not a full script, but might make for a scene. One of the editors of Dr. Dobbs confessed to this:

He was working for the Columbia, SC city government on maintaining the code on their mainframe. However, due to some bureaucratic mixup, he never got the parking pass he was supposed to get, and kept getting parking tickets. But, as it so happened, the tickets were issued by the mainframe he was programming. So he just changed the code to make all of his parking tickets disappear.

This isn't specifically PDP-8-related, but the story of Bell Labs going to extraordinary lengths to hire Ken Thompson is a hoot:


...not to mention Ken's story of Doug McIlroy writing a compiler for TCG on a sheet of paper, then using it to compile itself - by hand - thus "feeding his sheet of paper his sheet of paper."

I love that story about TCG. When in university discovering computer science I remember thinking “how was the first compiler made?” and I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of compilers out there have a lineage originating from McIlroy’s hand compiled TCG sheet.

Probably the story of DEC itself (the maker of the PDP line). An ahead of its time company that made breakthroughs that were picked up and extended by the likes of Apple.

Runner-up: the story of Texas instruments, and their innovative use of cheap transistors.

DEC would be an amazing story. They invented pretty much everything, forming the fundamentals of many now-dominant IT companies. They also underwrote some of my favorite educational programming growing up. Would be nice to see a little more 'Sponsored by Microsoft' for my own kids.

I'd second the Kidder book. It's really the story of the people building it, and how their lives were impacted.

I'd like to suggest a larger project: a history of the features we've come to call a "computer". For example, the stack. The PDP-8 didn't have one. Programmers would roll their own in software, usually with the limitation that you could only have 1 level of call, because you only stored one return address.

So; what machine gave us the first hardware version of the stack? When did using a stack become the job of the designer, not the programmer? As far as I can tell, the first one was the Burroughs B5000. In fact, I'd wager the B5000 architecture pretty much set the standard for all computers that followed.

But I think that story would be really interesting. As long as it's not only about the tech, but about all the people who tried, and the one(s) who succeeded. Not just a single feature, but the set of features that we now consider to be required for a "real" computer.

Digital Equipment Corporation, located outside of Boston, was the developer of the PDP family of computers. A key figure in developing many of their computers was C. Gordon Bell https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Bell. There is a cute meet story with his wife, Gwen. They founded the Computer Museum in Boston, which (long story) became the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA (Silicon Valley). He is/was on the Board of Trustees since founding. There is a four part oral history from 2005 with transcripts in CHM's archives. There are a bunch of videos on youtube. Most of his books are on the web, see: https://gordonbell.azurewebsites.net/gbvita.htm

IDK on the PDP-8, but PDP-10 had ITS.


One bizarre/amusing thing about ITS was that the login shell was the debugger, which kind of implies a lot about mindset, one way or another.

But then, so does the name "Incompatible Time Sharing" as a strong reaction against the major "Compatible Time Sharing" project.

Early history of artificial intelligence research, maybe MIT CSAIL specifically? https://projects.csail.mit.edu/films/aifilms/AIFilms.html

There were a few decades of research into symbolic AI and expert systems - "Good Old-Fashioned Artificial Intelligence" before the modern deep-learning revolution. Lots of promise, interesting research, and very cool (and esoteric) hardware came out of it, which never found wide application outside the lab. You could pitch it as a sort of analogue to Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006).

There are a lot of really interesting people from that era who could make a good story:

Lee Felsenstein - Homebrew Compter Club, Osborne 1, Sol-20 (this + Community Memory is a good story)

Ed Roberts - MITS

Nat Wadsworth - created a PC in 1973, heartbraking story http://www.willegal.net/feature_stories/Nat%20Wadsworth%20-%...

Dr Robert Suding - Create Digital Group computers

Robert Noyce - Founder of Fairfield semi and Intel. Really good book called The Man Behind The Microchip

Marvin Minsky, AI pioneer but allegedly has a sordid and questionable background with ties to Jeffrey Epstein.

Is he the one RMS was cancelled over?

> Ed Roberts - MITS

And the very beginning of Microsoft

Guy Steele has a talk [1] in which he recounts making some sort of utility program for the contemporary of the PDP-8, the IBM 1130. He describes all the gymnastics he went through to try to pack it into a single punch card, and also describes the benefits of having such a program on a single punch card rather than a series of them.

[1] "How to Think about Parallel Programming: Not!" - Guy L. Steele Jr. (Strange Loop 2010) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dPK6t7echuA

Guy Steele of course is a one of a kind, but just BTW, back in the day it was fairly common practice to try to squeeze bootstraps or other utilities onto one (or at least a tiny number of) cards, just as it was common to try to achieve the same thing with toggling in the same thing on front panel switches ("Ow, my aching fingers" :)

A little later in the 80's and not necessarily dealing with the PDP-8, but there's The Cuckoo's Egg, which is a first-person account of the hunt for a computer hacker who broke into a computer at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL).


There kinda is one already, Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in 'Desk Set' about a mini-computer that replaces the entire research department at an office. It was a little ahead of its time, but it correctly predicts what would eventually happen when the minicomputers came. It even has the evil IT / IBM guy who replaces all the fun office people with uncaring machines.

I'm surprised this book wasn't mentioned here first: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hackers:_Heroes_of_the_Compute...

The first part of the book describes MIT's Project MAC and AI Lab, from the TX-0 to the PDP-10.

This book would certainly make a good script, surprised it's not getting that many mentions

Dramatically, the Dartmouth experiment in teaching BASIC to all undergraduates could be profitable. Although they didn't use PDPs (they used a GE-265), it was the same time period. You have two visionaries, Kemeny and Kurtz, trying to bring a computer to every student and every faculty member. Kemeny's background allows appearances from Feynman, von Neumann, Alonzo Church, and Einstein. With the work happening in college, and being educational rather than pure research, students can be integral members of the plot and a couple working together to understand this new language and the concepts of time-sharing can lead naturally to romance.

Also an eye opener that the original BASIC implementation used a JIT based REPL, only with 8 bit home computing scene did interpreters came into play due to hardware restrictions.

Wasn't Unix developed on PDP-7 and PDP-11?

Correct, it began on a PDP-7 in embryonic form, and having proved the point to management, justified buying a PDP-11, which was then the primary Unix machine at Bell Labs for some years, certainly through Version 7 / 7th Edition, which was around the point when people started porting it to other architectures.

Right around then, Berkeley BSD development mostly shifted from PDP 11 to the DEC Vax 11/780.

pdp-11, so close. Large room filled with programmers. At the far end is a glassed enclosure with a pdp-11. To keep it cool and clean. Think a very large window. All the terminals are connected and sharing the pdp-11. People work diligently, but then wait for compiles and look bored. Suddenly all the programmers see something is wrong. They lost their work and the computer has been reset. Great consternation and trying to sort out what is wrong. Terminal start coming back and finally someone looks in the room. A person is standing next to the pdp-11 talking on the phone (yes one of those phones with a cord, this was long ago). Leaning against the pdp-11. Leaning against the reset button on the pdp-11. Oblivious to what is going on in the outer room, the person leans a little more and Pop. All the terminals lose the connection again. Mayhem. Chagrin. Panic. Someone runs to the door. And if you really want to, you can put an Apple Lisa in the room with the PDP-11 although no one would know what it is.

Take a look at pre-1970 issues of Datamation.

Not PDP-8, but PDP-11, the time my former boss went to Algeria to fix one on his own and succeeded. That's all I know about it. You can make up stuff to fill in the blanks.

I'm currently reading the soul of a new machine as mentioned in some other comments, I think it could potentially make a great movie.

The first third of Hackers by Steven Levy has some interesting stories about the PDP-8 I think also could be adapted to film.


(At least if you aren't completely set on the PDP-8.)

The Story of Mel would make a great pre-roll short!

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