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Not as famous as they should be

Pioneers that shaped computing as I know it

Autumn 2021

Some people in computing are famous, some are not. Sometimes the fame is proportional to their contributions to computing, sometimes it's not. That's how life and the world works: the winners write the history. Financial success and personal charisma are often deemed more interesting than quietly doing your work, however impactful it might be. The computer that's made the biggest impact on me is the Amiga. Several people are famous for their involvement in creating this computer, and rightly so. But some of those who laid the foundations for making it into an amazing overall experience of computing have gone largely unnoticed - even among Amiga users.

I think that's a bit sad and I'd like to help set the record straight by presenting a few persons whose work has had a deep impact on both how I personally and many others use and view computers in general and the Amiga in particular.

Avril Harrison

A few years ago, the Andy Warhol museum presented an exhibition called Warhol and the Amiga. The executive summary here is that when Commodore launched the Amiga 1000, they held a big gala and hired Warhol to sit on stage and muck about with computer graphics. A few decades later, the files he saved when learning to use the computer were restored and exhibited.

A lot of creative people were involved in making those works possible; engineers, programmers and artists - the least interesting of which I dare say is Warhol himself. The real star of the exhibition is the woman who - painstakingly, with a mouse - painted the copy of Boticelli's Venus onto which Warhol pasted an extra eye to "create" his "art". Her initials can be seen in the lower left of the image: AH, for Avril Harrison.

A portrait of a woman with flowing hair. The portrait has been ruined by Andy Warhol pasting a third eye on the woman's face.

Screenshot from www.warhol.org.

Harrison is, as far as I can tell, not exactly a public person. Her contribution to early computer art is however significant and she was involved in the early days of two legendary software companies. At the time of the Amiga's launch she was employed by Electronic Arts, which at that point were true believers in the Amiga's possibilities. Their most lasting contribution from this time is perhaps the IFF format, still recognized by some art packages in the form of ILBM images. The IFF ILBM image format was used in their most famous Amiga product, Deluxe Paint.

It's hard to convey the impact Deluxe Paint had on a generation of computer users and, indeed, the whole computer game biz. If you played a game on any platform during the 16-bit era, chances are the graphics were drawn in one of the many incarnations of the program. It was in fact so popular that certain artists in the British games industry allegedly held on to their beloved copies (and Amigas) well into the latter half of the 1990s, long after Commodore's demise, and used it when creating graphics for early PlayStation One titles.

One of the first artists to ever use this software is, without a shadow of a doubt, Harrison. The copy of Venus featured above is just one of her many Amiga images: she was both prolific and talented. Several of her works were distributed along with all versions of Deluxe Paint for the Amiga, showcasing what could be accomplished with the program (and no small amount of skill).

A realistic pixel art rendition of Tutankhamun's golden mask.

King Tut by Avril Harrison

Her most famous work is probably King Tut, a rendition of Tutankhamun's golden mask. This picture graced Deluxe Paint's box and manual cover, and over time it became a symbol of not only the program but the Amiga itself. It was prominently featured in ads, shop displays, test printouts and magazine articles. Nowadays it enjoys the same iconic status as the Amiga boing ball and kickstart hand.

Eventually, Harrison left Electronic Arts for LucasArts, now known as Lucasfilm Games. There she created graphics for several of their most famous and genre-defining adventure games including Monkey Island, Loom, Monkey Island II and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. Her contribution to early computer art and games doesn't stop there: rumor has it that governor Elaine Marley in Monkey Island is based on her likeness, thus closing the circle between game artist and game art.

I don't know much about Avril Harrison. There's not much information available about her online, to the point that I suspect she wants it that way. That doesn't matter: her art speaks for itself. A true pioneer of 16-bit pixels, her work remains a major inspiration for my own forays into computer graphics. Andy Warhol's, for the record, does not.

Mike Cowlishaw

and honorable mention William S. Hawes

Scripting languages are ubiquitous: Perl, PHP, Python, Ruby, Lua, JavaScript, VBScript, PowerShell, Tcl... and that's just scratching the surface. This wasn't always the situation. In the bad old days, most interpreted languages were clunky or rudimentary (or only available to people with access to expensive UNIX computers) and the compiled ones often cumbersome to work with for simpler tasks. Then there was REXX. I'm not going to say that REXX was the first modern scripting language, because such distinctions are always hard to make (and will anger fans of sh and awk, who are both numerous and belligerent). I am however willing to say it was one of the first that we'd recognize as such, especially on home computers: it's got a simple syntax, dynamic typing, associative arrays/dicts (of sorts), simple abstractions for file I/O, excellent built-in functions for text parsing and interesting facilities for introspection and metaprogramming.

Cowlishaw, a British computer scientist, worked at IBM when he designed the REXX language. Consequently, it was initially used for scripting and macros on their mainframes, but IBM soon ported it to several of their other operating systems. It spread to other platforms as well, including William S. Hawes' ARexx flavor on the Amiga, which was one of the first languages I ever wrote any kind of code in. (It was in February 1993 and the program was do 5; say hej; end, copied from a magazine article about ARexx.)

With the advent of the web and Linux, REXX' popularity dwindled, but it's still used on many IBM mainframes and by Amiga enthusiasts such as yours truly. It remains a useful language with text processing features I sometimes reach for even on Linux, using the Regina REXX implementation.

A screenshot of a text editor with colored syntax highlighting.

LEXX editing REXX. Screenshot © Mike Cowlishaw.

Not satisfied with designing a major programming language, Cowlishaw then set about writing an editor for Oxford University Press. It was to be used for editing the Oxford English Dictionary and was aptly named LEXX. What makes it really special is that it's (probably) the first editor with syntax highlighting. Today we take this for granted, but in the mid-1980:s it must've been a revelation. A nice collection of LEXX screenshots are available in a ZIP archive at Cowlishaw's own homepage, from which the above image is taken.

Cowlishaw's other contributions to computing are too many to list here, but includes the IEEE floating point arithmetic standard and IETF RFC 1945. But really, what's that compared to editing REXX in full technicolor? His work helped get me started in programming and lights up my code every day. That, honestly, ranks higher than HTTP in my book.

Martin Richards

and honorable mention Tim King

Martin Richards, another British computer scientist, is perhaps best known for creating the programming language BCPL. This in turn inspired the B and C languages designed by UNIX originators Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie, respectively. That's an accomplishment in its own right, but the fruit of Richards' labor I've personally enjoyed the most is his (and his students') work on TRIPOS.

TRIPOS is an operating system originally designed for PDP-11 machines at the University of Cambridge, where Richards headed the development. It's resource efficient, multi-tasking, sports a very capable command line and a Turing complete shell scripting language. It was ported to several other architectures and still sees some use in virtual machines running legacy financial software. However, its most famous application is perhaps MetaComCo's port to the Motorola 68000 series of CPUs. This was written by Tim King and led to TRIPOS' inclusion in AmigaOS. King added several improvements, new commands and the ED editor.

In AmigaOS, TRIPOS makes out the "DOS" part of the system: the clever device handling, the elegant directory structures, the command line, the intuitive commands and two of the editors. I stated above that the first code I ever wrote was in ARexx. This is perhaps only partly true: before that, I edited the Startup-Sequence on my Amiga, a script file executed when the computer boots. Though TRIPOS scripts (or sequence files as they're called) are capable of conditional branching and looping, there wasn't much actual programming involved on my part - something I've tried to make up for later.

A screenshot of a text editor editing a TRIPOS script file.

Editing an Amiga shell script using Ed: It's TRIPOS all the way down.
Side note: the {$$} variable contains the current process number (PID).

Richards' work is not only part of one of the most amazing home computer experiences ever - it also laid the foundation for my personal understanding of command line interfaces and set the standard for how I think they should mostly behave. Even to this day, many UNIX command flags and behaviors seem contrived and haphazard in comparison to the clarity of TRIPOS.

Final words

I shy away from the concept of heroes and idols: elevating someone to a position of imagined infallibility will only end in disappointment. I do, however, believe in admiring talent, skill and creativity. When the work can stand for itself and is more recognized than the person behind it, I think it's sometimes fair to shine a little light on the person as well. Harrison, Cowlishaw and Richards helped shape my interest in computers as much as - or perhaps even more than - the people usually mentioned when talking about the Amiga and its origins. That, I think, deserves a bit of celebration.