"Do things that have never been done before,” says guy who invented computer

Joel Runyon writes about "An Unexpected Ass Kicking," intellectually speaking, which he received in a Portland coffee shop from Russell Kirsch—the 80-year-old man who invented America's first internally programmable computer. Kirsch isn't a big fan of Apple products.


  1. That old man just made me feel bad about myself. In a good way. 

    Now I’m off to do some stuff that has heretofore only been conceptual.

  2. Minor correction: not “the world’s first internally programmable computer”, but “America’s first internally programmable computer”. Kirsch’s project was several years behind the SSEM and EDSAC work in England.

    1. I think the “internally programmable computer” description might be a bit of wordplay. It could be interpreted as a “stored program” computer, but it could be taken literally: the end of the quote says “my wife and I used to walk into it to program it.”

  3. I may be wrong, but I think it was the US’s first internally programmable computer he invented, not the world’s, which, by most accounts, was the Manchester Baby (SSEM)

  4. I’ve had more or less this same conversation with Russell a few years ago, back when I lived in that neighborhood, at a different café a few blocks away. He liked that I was using my computer to paint, and we talked a bit about software designed to create new works in the style of famous painters, which was way over my head but still super cool. Amazing guy, glad to hear he’s still out and about and blowing people’s minds!

    1.  Wait a minute… how sure are we that he isn’t just in the pocket of Big Indie Coffee Shop? “Wow- all I have to do is show up in a café in Portland, and I’ll get an amazing interview dropped in my lap?”

      Seriously, though, it is a kind of wonderful that he is just going around encouraging people to do stuff.

  5. I like that comment from Kirsch. “Nothing is withheld from us which we have conceived to do.” He’s right, of course, and he’s also right in saying most people don’t ever try to do anything productive. It’s easier to argue against trying to be creative and productive than to actually attempt it. But even if you attempt it, you won’t fail. Everyone gains something, even from merely trying.

  6. I use my iPad to draw and paint, that may not count as creating to people with a certain mindset.  I use my PC and my Mac to do the same things.   Not everybody needs to be an engineer, and somebody needs to be there to use the tools the engineers create.

    1. According to @boingboing-c5dad0890e623f112501bd5931a20f69:disqus above, Kirsch is more than willing to consider digital painting as creation. I think the problem is a lot of people don’t understand the creative potential of the iPad, because the average user goes to the app store and buys games and movies and surfs the internet.

      1. Which is of course totally different from the average PC user. And – o horror – the majoity of pens sold will see nothing more creative than a shopping list or “Mom called.”

  7. Oh well :-)

    Don’t ask what your computer can do for you,
    ask what you can do with your computer…

  8. This is interesting. Sometimes I wonder why some computer people are more famous than others. I think of Meredith Meredith Vieira not knowing who Tim Berners-Lee was at the Olympics.  We know that Steve Jobs and Apple had/have a  huge PR team. It was just recently revealed that they didn’t advertise much in the early days of some products because they knew the media would cover it extensively.

    It’s a bit sad that our real world “wizards” have to remind people one on one about their role in making our world.

    The people who actually develop the products aren’t always out there talking but their work, probably because they would rather be doing the work.  Promoting yourself can be very uncomfortable. 

     A friend asked me the other day if I knew who Bill Atkinson was. “Nope.”  He was the creator of  HyperCard. I had heard of HyperCard but then he said that as it inspired the creation of both ” HTTP and JavaScript, wiki and an early web browser.  On Wikipedia I found how  he had created MacPaint and designed and implemented QuickDraw on the first Mac.   As someone who as used all those products (including two right now) I found that fascinating.  My friend was asking be because he wanted to know if I wanted to hear him speak this Sunday night at the Hillside club in Berkeley.   I might go, since I clearly don’t hang out in the right coffee shops.  :-)

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