A Self-Interview

by George Michael

George Michael





I started at the Laboratory on the 16th April in 1953. Someone met me at the gate and told me I would be sitting in the "Cooler" until my Q clearance came through. It's been downhill since then.

I can honestly state that interviewing myself is boring. The purpose of this recording is to talk about some of the earliest memories I have of things that had to do with graphics. To do that, I will talk first about the UNIVAC. Now, the UNIVAC arrived about a week after I got there. I got my clearance in one month - never having been anywhere interesting, nor done anything even moderately contentious - but it took six months or so to get the UNIVAC cleared (to run). And while we were waiting, we practiced writing UNIVAC programs and did a collection of manual calculations and plots to produce, exactly, the numbers that we expected the UNIVAC to produce when it ran. Some of the bigger design calculations, then as now, took between 20 and 40 hours to run. Of course, they were very simple compared to what's being done now. Simple or otherwise, they produced reams and reams of output. It took a long time to get at the output because it was printed, one character at a time on typewriters. These typewriters were somewhat modified Remington Rand typewriters with very wide carriages. We produced, literally, reams of output on these printers. We would then take the output, plot the numbers appropriately, by hand, on graph paper and, truthfully, it took too long. One run would take over a week to plot, so that you could see just the crudest of the trends in the calculation, or what was much worse, find out that there was some sort of error and all the computer time had been, in a sense, wasted. However, this intimacy with ones output seemed to give a special kind of intuition about how the program was running.

We decided that we needed some kind of automatic plotter. Now, the chief engineer on the UNIVAC, Lou Nofrey, and Bob Crew, Chet Kenrich, and Dick Karpen, all assistant engineers, found a commercially available flatbed plotter. A crude vacuum held down the paper, and you could move an X-Y plotter on top of it, and a little hammer would smack a die through a wet ink ribbon, and leave a symbol where it hit. One of the problems with this plotter, which was about the only thing then available, is that it had no interface to the UNIVAC; the only thing it understood was IBM punched cards. So—complexity on complexity—what was done was to feed the data written on an ordinary output UNIVAC tape (a metal oxide coating on a metal tape) into a converter that could produce punched cards. For output, the UNIVAC recorded on tapes at a density of 20 pulses per inch—20 bits per inch—20 characters per inch— in each of seven parallel tracks. The trouble was that there was no such converter. So, Lou Nofrey and his crew designed and built such a machine. It would accept input from the tape and produce punched cards—old-fashioned, ordinary IBM cards. We then took the IBM cards and put them through an IBM "Summary Punch" that was hooked up to the plotter; (I think I remember that Benson Lehrner made the plotter.) After a suitable setup, which included a lot of twiddling and diddling with multiplier potentiometers (pots) and scaling pots, and so forth, and much effort to ensure that the paper was aligned exactly with the X-Y axes of the plotter, you could actually get it to read the cards and produce a series of points. And then, by carefully drawing the axes, you could read values from the plot. Not surprisingly, it turns out, that really wasn't much faster than doing it by hand. An added "feature" was that the plotter refused to stay adjusted, so comparison of successive graphs was essentially impossible.

The entire procedure was too complicated and time consuming to be useful in our daily work but that, I believe, is a first instance of computer graphics at the Lab. It was between 1953 and '54 that this work was done. The plotter didn't survive too long because it represented much too much complex hand waving to get the plot. It most cases, it was actually faster to plot something by hand, even though it took a week to do, say, the fifty plots that characterized a problem—that is, reduce all of the results from an entire problem to the graph paper.

The other thing that certainly contributed to the early death of that plotter was the fact that in 1956 we took delivery of some 704s from IBM, IBM 704s, on one of which there was a cathode ray tube that was imaged by a camera. It was called the Model 740. So, this was the Model 740 on the IBM 704. And there was also a direct-view tube that went with it, the Model 780—a modified television set. And one could look at the results as they were being played out at the same time that the objects were being plotted by the 740 and recorded on film. The difference in speed between the Benson Lehrner plotter and the IBM 740/780 was so dramatic that it quickly became the favorite way to produce graphical output from the design calculations. Of course, there's no free lunch. As delivered, the 740 was loaded with inadequacies. The unit while faster than anything else we had, was impressively slow, the distance between frames was not constant, the lens and the film used did not match the phosphor, a single frame advance took on the order of half a second. Initially, we were treated to the slow production of poor quality pictures. However, fixing these problems turned out to be easy, and it was stimulating and gave us the nerve to go to bigger and better things.

Before discussing some software efforts, I would like to just mention some other graphical developments from these early years. Starting with the IBM 740/780, we will be discussing the Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-1, the Data Display Incorporated dd80, the Information International Incorporated FR-80, the Scientific Data Systems SIGMA-7, and the Television Monitor Display System. Some of the persons being interviewed will discuss, more extensively, these and other aspects of the development of graphics capabilities at the Laboratory. Even including these discussions, not all the graphics work that went on at the Lab is going to be covered. The ones that are mentioned are intended to highlight some particular aspect of the graphical work that went on. It is not my intention to slight the other work. I am simply not as familiar with it as I should be. Where possible, I hope later to interview some of those who were more involved, but were missed for one reason or another in my initial set of interviews.

In the abstract, the early display devices were ones that supply some hardware solutions for elementary actions like:



With such primitives, it is necessary to develop programs that can display characters, draw lines and, generally, produce pictures that satisfy some set of requirements. The early display devices were delivered without such software; a situation that was both awkward and liberating. One might say that, instead of delivering, manufacturers abandoned their hardware at our door, and it became both our job and our pleasure to write the software—it didn't have that name then—that we actually got to use.

One of the most interesting pieces of software developed very early was a subroutine called "Plotla" written by Norman Hardy. Its only function was that between any two points in the lattice, it could plot a "best straight" line represented by a series of points that were spaced either every point, every other point, every fourth point, and so on. It was a very tight and fast routine. The speed of the 740 was such that it could only plot, in 151 microseconds, either a point at some location (X,Y) in a raster of 1024 by 1024 points, or starting at a given point, it could draw either a horizontal line, a vertical line, or a 45-degree diagonal line going from lower left to upper right from that given point. With that capability, one had to see all of things that you'd like to plot in terms of those three or four simple little capabilities. Norman's routine, even though there was some nontrivial amount of calculation being done to get the points, was a tight routine.

Being as fast as possible, Plotla was used extensively. So, everything, practically speaking, was built out of that and one other subroutine. We used some data tables to design characters that could be plotted in a 5 by 7 matrix of points. With this capability, we were able to build routines that simulated all kinds of graph paper and plotted all kinds of points, and also, of course, with some trickery, produced strange kinds of surface texturing features. So an area could be textured or otherwise marked according to some prescription.

Another interesting thing—this is now about late 1956 or early 1957—is the so-called discovery of motion pictures. It happened this way: Every week, the group of designers would get together and talk about their designs and what problems were current. At these meetings, people would discuss and show how their calculations were progressing. Among those was Chuck Leith. So, one day he was showing some of the results that he had obtained by using Ng triangular zoning [1]. Beside allowing some very interesting approximations and averaging techniques, some theorists believed tiling with triangular zones was the most natural way to the difference equations in a region. Anyway, his results, showing the movement of the mash, were recorded on a strip of 35mm film and in a slide projector. When he was finished he just pulled the filmstrip out of the projector and the image on the screen moved! It electrified everyone in the room. This was incredible! The images were moving! And, at once, everybody saw the value that motion would contribute to the presentation of such results.
George Michael


The use of motion pictures in science was common enough, but it seems that no one had yet thought of them as being useful when doing mathematics and physics with a computer model. But there it was—a powerful new way to perceive one's results. So, several of us began looking into the uses of computer generated motion sequences. In general, however, computer time was too valuable to use it making movies. So, the movie-making mechanisms had to be careful not to use too much computer time and, certainly, to never waste time. Among other things, this inspired efforts to develop things away from the big computers, and a search for a small computer that could be used for movie making. One other approach was followed—the movie making capability on the big computers was improved.

One of the first things we decided was that the camera was not acceptable for movie making and had to be replaced. At this point enters our Technical Photography Division. Then, Bill Jordan was in charge of it, but the guys who did the work included Dave Dixon and perhaps one or two others that I don't remember now. But what they did was to interface a real movie camera to the computer. The camera had pin registration and a claw pull-down, so that the amount of film that was moved at each frame advance was very, very accurately controlled to within a few ten-thousandths of an inch. And with that camera, we started producing motion pictures. The next problem that showed up was that the film being used was not acceptable. It had, in one case, a bluish cast, and the images were very blurry. I started dealing with some representatives from Kodak, complaining about the need for a much better film. They started bringing out samples of new coatings that would respond better to the kind of phosphor that was on the 5-inch tube in the Model 740. It was an exciting, interesting thing to do, to learn how to match the capabilities of the lenses, and the film, and the film processing, and the phosphor in the tube, and the amount of energy that was being produced by the unblanked signal, and so forth, and get that all to work together harmoniously, so that we got sharper images. But we did it. I should add that some of these developments found their way into a neat Kodak handbook on CRT photography, and some very excellent films were developed, giving more resolution and more photographic speed.

It was a tremendous amount of fun, but not being satisfied with just that, the next thing that people started talking about was, wouldn't it be neat if we could produce color pictures? By color-coding the data in each frame, one could see very quickly lots of new information that was not so obvious from looking at numbers or even monochrome pictures. This was, I would say, in the middle to the latter half of 1957.

The problem of producing color was, in general, much more difficult. One can think of the customer as the human eye, a very high precision device. It had to see the computer colors as comparable with every day color. The variables in this study included the CRT phosphors, the color films, lenses and film processors. We considered various things, but it was a suggestion of Dave Dixon in our Technical Photography group that the color processes that were available on film could be exploited best by organizing the information we wanted to plot into separate frames of monochrome film, each frame being destined for a unique, logical color. We called this the Color Separation Method. Thus, you could imagine the information on one frame would be meant to be projected onto the color film through a green filter, and the next frame go through blue, and the next frame it would be red, and so on. And, with the help of an optical-effects printer in the darkroom, it would merge these pictures, one on top of the other, through appropriate color filters, onto some ordinary, standard color film, and produce a color image. We tried that, and although it took a long time, it yielded superb color pictures. The problems of directly producing color pictures and movies took considerably longer to overcome, so in the interim this Color Separation Method was used, albeit sparingly. Nonetheless over the years, thousands of colored movies were produced.

Our very first attempts at this, other than just test runs and so forth, were done with the help of Leith's program. Chuck modified the code so that some of the contents of one frame would be designated as green data, and the next would be in blue, and so forth. Of course, one could merge, for instance, green and blue and produce yellow and things like that. This gave a usable color capability without having to wait for the making of a special color CRT and special films and lenses and so on. It turned out that something over six years went by before one could produce color pictures directly from a computer controlled CRT.

I took the first set of black and white (monochrome) runs that were produced. Since we had no equipment of our own at the Lab to do this sort of thing, I took them down to a place in Hollywood called Film Effects. The person who had invented the optical-effects printer during the Second World War ran it. His name was Linwood Dunne. And he thought we were crazy when I told him what we wanted to do and how to do it, but he said, "It's your money, you can do what you want." So, in this manner, he produced our first Color Separated movies, through green, blue, and red filters sequentially. And, lo and behold, we had real color output! It wasn't the best, most slick color in the world, but it was very usable color output. And with it, you could see, for instance, the hottest spots in a field in red, or, when you chose, to show a shock position in yellow. It came out beautifully.

We brought this film back to the Laboratory and showed it to all the designers, and while it was generally very well received, the impression, again was like the reaction to the Benson-Lehrner plotter several years earlier: Ho Hum. It was too involved to become a part of the regular production cycling that had to be done with these design codes.

Dave Dixon built an optical-effects printer that would do the job at the Lab. With that little thing, many, many, movies in color were made, and when the work outgrew the homemade version, we acquired a commercial version where even more elaborate effects were possible. We tried putting the effects printer under control of a computer, but it was a step too far into the future; digital control was still too foreign to the film industry. And, as usual, by the time they caught up, the entire approach had been passed by.

The color films that Kodak and others now started producing for direct exposure by CRTs got to be better and better, along with the processing that was being done, and by our learning about better lenses, and better films, and better CRTs and so forth, we could blend all of these things together and produce the best color film exposures that were possible.

In 1960, say, we finalized the design of what was called a high-precision cathode ray tube. Its raster was 4,096 by 4,096 points, and it had many levels of intensity, and it could draw characters and draw lines, and so forth. This machine, this precision thing, was to be an integral part of our first acquisition of a PDP-1 computer from the Digital Equipment Corporation, which had two basic goals. It was to be kind of a romper room for us to try weird ideas, and it was to do all of the plotting that came off the larger machines. You'd just bring over a tape and plot the stuff. The PDP-1 we got was truly a romper room. With it, one could explore many areas that were for us, really new. It was made to talk, play music, and do high-precision film recording. It could accept magnetic or paper tape or punched-card input or output and had one other unusual feature: It was able to digitize photographic records. This was done initially using the 740 CRT on the IBM 704, but the PDP-1 was faster and far more accurate. This facility was called the Eyeball, and was used for almost ten years to digitize many test films.

These films were held in the Eyeball's film mount device. A point (X,Y) was displayed on the CRT and imaged on the film sample. One measured the amount of light getting through the film and knew thereby, the photographic density at that point. All of the readings were written onto a tape and taken over to a larger computer where various filtering and analysis techniques were used.

Somewhat independently, at Information International, Ed Fredkin, Ben Gurley, and later Bob Waller produced a series of much more elaborate Eyeballs, which they called Programmable Film Readers (PFR). The PFR-2 was the most precise of these, having effectively, a 218 by 218 addressable raster, and this was used by an AEC contractor, EGG, in Nevada to digitize the films that were being produced there. The PFR-3 and the PFR-1, at least, were used in rocket research to digitize rocket traces and other shock analyses that came out of White Sands and North American Rockwell and places like that. And PFR-0 and PFR-3 were used also in various and sundry of the DOE laboratories to digitize things like bubble chamber films that were produced by the big accelerators. Even with that precision, it was decided by the persons who were doing the work, that that was not sufficient. So, while they did a great deal of analysis, higher precision measurements were needed. These were being done by other kinds of specialized semiautomatic film analyzers based on the on-axis measurement of photographic density. But I won't go further into those here.

Many years later, I met a person, Phil Peterson, who was then at Lincoln Laboratory working on the TX 2. He independently had the same idea and proceeded also to build an "eyeball," which he called the Flying Spot Digitizer and used, among other things, to scan a slide of the Mona Lisa. He then achieved some added fame by producing a very large picture of the Mona Lisa on a Cal Comp 30-inch plotter. He did this while he was an employee of CDC, and it had a great deal of publicity all over the United States. Everybody wanted a copy of the Cal Comp Mona Lisa picture. It became an instant collector's item.

Well, again, in the time between its design and delivery, new things came along, not the least of which was, in our case, a display called the dd80, which was built for us by Data Display Incorporated, in St. Paul. Data Display was absorbed into CDC subsequently but, at the time, it was a separate little company, and they were using an electrostatic deflection system instead of the standard electromagnetic deflection. This allowed the dd80 to be much faster than any other display system then in existence. And these machines allowed us to return the display function to the production machines. On the IBM computers, the interface was a data channel that delivered 36 bits every 6 microseconds to the display controller. We went through a typical improvement sequence, getting better films and lenses.

George Michael
With the help of Leonard Nelson, vice president of Ehrenreich Photo-optical, we were able to get a CRT lens that dramatically improved exposures. The lens was so good that it was produced in great number and used throughout the AEC test facilities.

The dd80 CRT had a P-24 phosphor on it. Just as a measure of how things had improved, when we started with the 740 on the 704, the cycle time to plot a point was 151 microseconds. On the dd80 it was about 4.0 microsec. Even with that short time, the new films were able to record the exposure. In addition, much better looking characters picked out of an ASCII matrix, could be plotted in 9 microseconds. And lines drawn from anywhere to anywhere on the face of the tube could be done between 6 and 30 microseconds each. So, the machine was a very powerful, fast, and stable thing. And it led to a major change in how we produced output on the computers for the design calculations.

We needed a fast camera. We found it in a company called Flight Research, run by Bob Woltz. We got him to slightly modify a version of the Flight Research camera that had been developed to photograph spark chambers used at LBL and other accelerator sites. Our version of it had thousand foot magazines, and was capable of up to 30 frame advances a second—that's almost two feet per second. So the frame advance, which used to be a half a second or so on the 740, became a more acceptable time. In consequence, we could run some calculations that were more or less simple and photograph the output at 30 frames a second, and some of the movies that are still in the archive today were made precisely that way.

I want back up a little bit. Starting back in the early '60s, when we had the PDP 1, and even on the 740 earlier, in addition to Norman Hardy, other programmers like Bob Cralle, Garret Boer, and Gale Marshall were producing useful software such as, given a large collection of values, plot a series of isopleths in color. I remember also, David Mapes, who had an intuitive grasp of the binary character of the display routines. We put together great quantities of little routines that could be pulled out of a repertoire and stuck into the physicist's FORTRAN code to do all kinds of plotting and graphics massaging and so forth. Pat Crowley and I produced a thing called CRT-Batch, which was a collection of many of the plotting subroutines existing at the time. These routines ran mostly on the production computers that used the dd80s, until they had outgrown their usefulness. There are, however, still versions of CRT Batch running and the dd80s were never superseded in speed. It was one of the fastest things on wheels then, and probably still is, but there arose a desire for more precision and flexibility.

We got this higher precision in the '70s by our acquisition of the FR-80s from the Information International Incorporated. The FR-80s—I think there were six of them at the Lab at one point—provided a resolution of 80 line pairs per millimeter. They had the ability of recording on a variety of film formats and directly on paper. They took over essentially 80 percent of the output load of the entire computational facility. The remaining 20 percent were produced on a high-speed printer, the Radiation Printer, a 7 page per second device. Its description will be covered at another time. The FR-80s picked up a load of about one million microfiche per year with an average of over 120 pages per fiche produced at a reduction of 42X. The FR-80s were not anywhere near as fast as the dd80, but they produced an incredibly finer image. As the people aged at the Lab, the speed got to be less important than the quality of the output. There may be some sort of ontological message here, but I'll leave that for some sociologists to ponder.

To return to the question of software, I think what should be inferred from all this is that, given the opportunity to fiddle around with some very strange equipment, people tend to do interesting things especially if they're not being hassled by deadlines or other things. We had some young and very bright people who came to work at the Laboratory during the summers. One of them, Ken Bertran, was a cooperative engineering student at Berkeley. And he and I worked a lot together. We started this adventure on the 709 or 7090, I don't remember. But the idea was, given a display device and given the fact that the computer is a powerful logic engine, produce, with Kenneth doing most of the work, a program that could do Symbolic Algebra or simulate things like an oscilloscope probe. Such capability is present today in things like Macsyma and Mathematica. It was really important, in his version, that the functions you were working with could be displayed on the screen of a direct view CRT, and in stereo if needed.

We moved fairly quickly from the 704/709/7090 sequence to the PDP 1 as soon as it got in, and started producing things there, because there was much less pressure on the programmer to get out of the way and let some production work get done. With Ken's program, you could get a stereoscopic view of the function and, now, if you trained your eyes the right way, you could see the thing in livid, three dimensions and understand what the function looked like. You could do calculations with the program and understand the consequences of changing a variable or changing a parameter.

We did two other things from which not much came. One was an attempt to digitize voice such that you could synthesize new words from the phonemes that were being spoken. This used the Eyeball, and the idea was these sounds would be strung together to produce speech. First, it seemed that we could read things and produce speech use by persons who had a vision problem and to let the computer instruct the operators about what was needed. Like telling them to mount a tape, or replenish a paper supply. Again, a complete solution of the problem was too tedious for people to use; there were simpler but less capable things available and more generally, this sort of dabbling didn't really fit in with the Laboratory's programmatic work.

We tried reading with music with the Eyeball. We could read the music and select certain voices to have the PDP-1 play through a set of attached speakers. But again, it was too tedious; the machine wasn't fast enough for the job we wanted to do. All it was really good for was a "demonstration of principle." Actually, an MIT student, Peter Samson, developed an encoding scheme for writing and playing music on the PDP 1.

I should mention also that, when the Eyeball was developed, some of the people—Gale Marshall, Roger Fulton, Ray De Saussure, David Mapes, and Larry Gales—were very instrumental in making this piece of hardware a usable tool for the purposes that we had intended. I'm not sure where any of these persons are now, but the work they did in the early '60s should not be forgotten; it was truly a pioneering effort.

I think it would be fun to end this diatribe with a little anecdote that I think is charming. After we had the dd80 working fully, it was one of the sources of illustrations never before seen. There was a program that Bob Cralle produced called "Jahke." Inside this Jahke you could house all kinds of programs.

At one point, I was asked to give a talk at an Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) dinner meeting on St. Patrick's Day.

We put together samples of films and a first clip that said "Happy St. Patrick's Day." Since we controlled the size of the characters, Bob made them vanishingly small to begin with, and he displayed them backwards. And then, as the film played, this phrase approached the viewer, and at an appropriate time was supposed to turn around and become readily recognizable as "Happy St. Patrick's Day." Well, so fine and good.

It was, of course, printed in all livid green, just beautiful. And it was the first of many little clips of film that were on this sampler that I had made up to illustrate our work. We were privileged then to have such beautiful equipment. And it was, well, it was fun to show others what you could do with it. So, we went to the banquet, and we gave the talk, but something happened.

The projectionist looked at the film before he put it into the camera, and noticed that it was backwards, because he could see that it was "Happy St. Patrick's Day," but it was backwards. So, he thought that the film had been wrapped wrong on the reel. So he rewrapped it. He reversed it. I was supposed to stand up and say, "Well, I want you to see that this is a special day, because St. Patrick got rid of some of the snakes in Ireland, so we want to wish you all a Happy St. Patrick's Day." And we show this thing marching onto the screen, and I say, "Oh, it's backwards. Turn it around." But it was already turned around, and now it went backwards. So, everybody got a large laugh out of that thing. But it just goes to show you—you can't assume too much about how others will view your work. It's working around corners that you hadn't otherwise thought about.

Finally, there is a story to tell about graphics for the masses. In the mid 1960s I was shown some work at CDC being done by Malcolm MaCaulley and Joseph Hood. Briefly, they were building interfaces in a CDC 3600 to go from video to digital data and from digital data to video. The key point is that the vision organ was an ordinary television display. Back at the Lab, we were actively looking for a way to provide graphics capability directly in the user's office that was affordable. Television monitors clearly were the lowest cost displays we could find. The question of how and where to manage the refresh did not have so obvious an answer. Then, some low cost disks came available. The one we chose was a made by Armin Miller at Data Disk, Inc. There was a head per track and the heads rode directly on the disk surface, a cobalt-nickel alloy. The capacity was such that at least 16 video channels could be placed on each disk. Then the vector display lists were scan converted using a program running on the production computer, and characters were produced through a video character generator. The scan converter software was highly optimized; it produced raster displays faster than a television camera. Thus was born the first model of the Television Monitor Display System (TMDS). With the refresh of the screen being served by writing the rasterized images on the disk, and the TV signals distributed to individual offices over high-grade coaxial cable, the users finally had excellent graphics in their offices. Later models of the TMDS grew from 16 to almost 256 video channels, and then through some cross bar switches to almost 2048 terminals. Also, later on, the refresh disks were replaced by solid-state memories.

As with all the other graphics devices mentioned in this interview, a more detailed treatment is given in some of the other interviews.

Finally, I would like to reiterate that this discussion of some early graphics adventuring at the Lab is not meant to be complete.




[1] At that time, and even today, most difference equations were written specifically for quadrilateral zoning.




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