Dave tells Ahl - the history of Creative Computing. (David Ahl's personal narrative) John J. Anderson.
Creative Computing is the oldest (and probably most beloved) magazine in the field of personal computing. But where did it come from? It simply didn't pop out of nowhere to become the "number one magazine in software and applications." In many ways the story of Creative Computing is the story of microcomputing. For from humble beginnings, it made its rise along with microcomputers themselves. And like the rise of the hardware and software it chronicled, the rise of Creative Computing was meteoric, often risky, and occasionally rocky. Ten years is a long time, you know. Twenty generations, if you clock it using industry standard time.
To try to answer the question, on this, the tenth anniversary of Creative Computing, I sat down with my boss--the founder, editor-in-chief, and head honcho around here, David Hollerith Ahl. He is a brilliant, yet enigmatic man, at his core actually rather shy. Surely you could make the case that he was in the right place at the right time. In 1974 personal computing was an industry just waiting to happen.
But Ahl was and remains to this day a visionary; he has for the last decade been hanging ten on the "Third Wave," as it were. Had he gotten his way at a board meeting over a decade ago, the first practical personal computers would have appeared in 1974 and sported the three letters DEC. When the mainframe priesthood was at the pinnacle of its power, Ahl was one of the original promoters of computer literacy for the masses. And from the start, he promulgated the idea that computers should be fun.
With uncanny powers of prediction, Ahl has brought the leading edge of technology to his readers. He reported on microfloppy disk drives in 1977, when 8" drives were considered state of the art. He told his readers about laser discs back in 1976, predicting their ascendency and use as computer storage devices. In 1979 Creative reported on the basics of window-nesting. CD audio disks were known to Ahl's readers as early on as 1981.
And from the beginning, Ahl geared his magazine in a manner that has engaged the very best minds. In their book Fire in the Valley, Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine define the air of Creative Computing as "intellectually playful." That is the essence of a truly creative environment--and that is why he chose the name Creative Computing.
So where did this guy come from, anyway? The Formative Years
The story of Creative Computing really begins with a somewhat nerdy seventh grader in Malverne, NY, a community on the south shore of Long Island. It was 1950, and David H. Ahl had just entered Malverne Junior-Senior High School. He found himself in the homeroom of Natalia Dugas, a science teacher. Ahl recalls having a bit of a crush on Miss Dugas. He joined the school photography club simply because she was the club advisor.
On a fateful spring day in 1951, Miss Dugas took the club on a field trip into New York City by bus and subway. They walked all the way from Battery Park to 42nd Street, snapping shots of everything as they sauntered uptown.
Ahl's main recollection, however, was downtown, around the mouth of the financial district: Cortlandt Street, to be specific. The area he remembers so fondly was vaporized back in 1964 to make room for the World Trade Towers. To those who frequented it, it was known as "Radio Row."
From that day until he went off to college, Ahl made regular trips to the magical marketplace that was Radio Row. Tenement storefront after storefront piled exotic wares on rickety wooden sidewalk stands. Most of it was World War II surplus; much of it was out and out junk. But all of it was electronic: aircraft radios, bombsights, amplifiers, oscillators, relays, solenoids, transformers, mercury switches, rheostats, gyroscopes, diodes, vacuum tubes, rows of pushbuttons, crystals, resistors, tuners, and scads of things that were desirable precisely because their functions were unknowable.
Tinkering with the cheap parts he brought home in cardboard boxes, Ahl started to learn. Soon he was building the projects described in magazines like Popular Electronics and Radio/TV News. Within six months, he had taught himself enough to start a small business repairing radios.
Always starved for decent tools, Ahl undertook an essay contest "Why I Like RCA Instruments," undaunted by the fact that he had never touched an RCA instrument. To his surprise, the essay was good enough to win him an RCA vacuum tube voltmeter. Now he was ready to experiment.
With his ninth grade classmate Tod Dixon, Ahl invented a device they dubbed the "rudio Teletype." This amazing kludge was a typewriter with a solenoid attached to every key. Each solenoid was activated by a relay and oscillator, and each key had its own frequency. One working unit was completed, but work on a second was abandoned. Ahl says the idea "sort of worked," though all tests were conducted under heavily experimental conditions. But Dixon moved away, and Ahl moved on to other things. The project was abandoned.
In addition to electronics, Ahl's other passions in high school were mathematics (captain of the math club) and Boy Scouts (Eagle Scout by tenth grade). Although he was active in sports, clubs, and church groups, he was never particularly popular and recalls himself as a "square." Nevertheless, his grades and active participation in extra-curricular activities earned him a full tuition college scholarship from Grumman.
Ahl entered the School of Electrical Engineering at Cornell University in 1956. He breezed through the first year and a half, but in junior year his grades plummeted. He failed AC Machinery--a notoriously tough course--and was about ready to throw in the sponge. Of course in 1958 dropping out of college was not nearly as fashionable as it is today. Ahl's parents were pretty upset, and with David visited the school to talk to Dean William Erickson.
Ahl looks back at that one hour conference as a major turning point in his life. "Erickson told me," says Ahl, "that I could master any subject at all, including AC Machinery, if I would just use my brain to think rather than memorize. He was understanding, but not in the least bit gentle. He gave me the determination to succeed." Though his grades did not rebound immediately, by senior year Ahl was selected for Eta Kappa Nu, the EE honorary. Cornell and Computers
In the late 1950's, Cornell experimented with a five-year engineering program which gave its graduates the equivalent of both a BS and a BA degree. Thus, students in this program had much greater exposure to liberal arts and humanities courses than typical engineering students. The program has since been abandoned, but Ahl felt it was worthwhile because "it gave us a much broader perspective on the role of engineering in the world than we would have had otherwise. Far too few graduates nowadays have a good understanding of their roles in the greater scheme of things."
In 1957, Cornell installed its first computer. It was an early Burroughs experimental model, installed in the ME school. Only two computer courses were offered, and Ahl took both of them. "They barely scratched the surface," Ahl recalls. However, for his fifth year project course, Ahl wrote a computer program to aid in the acoustic design of rooms. It took account of the shape of a room, absorbency of surfaces and objects, reverberation and echoes. "It was an interesting project," says Ahl, "because it showed me that computers could do more than crunch numbers; they could simulate a real-world environment."
During junior and senior years, Ahl spent his summers working in the fledgling computer group of Grumman Aircraft. He remembers one unbelievably dull summer. "All I did was write programs to calculate the distortion coefficient of radar signals passing through a radome at various angles. But the following summer ('61) was great! Our group was writing programs to simulate practically everything about the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory, years before it was built and launched." Grad School and Beyond
Having decided against engineering as a career, Ahl entered the Graduate School of Industrial Administration at Carnegie-Mellon University in 1961. In contrast to Harvard or Wharton, GSIA takes a much more quantitative approach to management. Computers were a part of many courses, and Ahl soon learned about the mysteries of linear programming, queueing theory, production-line scheduling and gaming theory as well as the more traditional managerial psychology, accounting, finance, policy formulation, and law.
As part of an assistantship, Ahl was asked to help write segments of the management game (a simulation of competition in the detergent industry). He also translated it from Gate, a low level assembly-type language of the Bendix G-15 computer, to a then-new high level language, called Fortran. As with his acoustics project at Cornell and satellite simulations at Grumman, Ahl was most fascinated by computer simulations of aspects of the real world.
Upon leaving CMU, Ahl joined the Army Security Agency for his two-year ROTC tour of duty. He describes his days attached to the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg as "one day's experience repeated 730 times." In between exercises with names such as "Swift Strike" and "Desert Strike," he nevertheless managed to take some short courses and picked up touch-typing as well as IBM 650 assembler and Cobol programming. Computerizing Market Research
After his hitch, Ahl joined with a former professor who had just geared up a market research consulting company, called Management Science Associates. Ahl found himself handling clients like Scott Paper, two divisions of General Foods, Hershey, and Hunt-Wesson. The company was primarily involved with the analysis of consumer panel data, and Ahl wrote a series of programs to forecast the sales of new products dependent upon the trial and repeat purchasing behavior of test panel families. Within several years, his model became the standard of the industry; it is still in widespread use today.
In 1969, Ahl joined Educational Systems Research Institute where, once again, he was involved in the writing of computer programs to simulate real world processes--this time the success of vocational school students based on courses taken, grades, and a host of other variables.
During these years in Pittsburgh, Ahl had been attending night courses at the University of Pittsburgh, toward a Ph.D. in educational psychology. Unfortunately, he was a few credits and a dissertation shy of another degree in early 1970 when he left Pennsylvania to join Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in Maynard, MA. DEC and Education
As a result of his background, Ahl was brought aboard by DEC to conduct formal research in the minicomputer market. However, when the vice president who hired him left DEc a few months later, Ahl had to find a new home. Hence he joined the PDP-8 product group with the mission to market computers to educational institutions--a market he had identified in his market research role as having very good potential.
Although colleges saw the need for computers, there were three serious obstacles to be surmounted in minicomputer sales to elementary and secondary schools in the early 1970's. First was the price; a typical single user system cost upwards of $10,000, before mass storage. Then there was the question of a suitable high level language. DEC had written a language called Focal, a marvelous interactive version of Algol; however, Dartmouth was promoting the use of Basic on the Dartmouth timesharing system (DTSS) and this was the best known project providing terminals to secondary schools. The third obstacle was the lack of applications software.
Prices were coming down and Ahl wasn't in a position to do much about that anyway, so he concentrated on the second and third obstacles. Since the DEC software development group wasn't the least interested in Basic, Ahl contracted with several outsiders to write Basic interpreters for different hardware configurations. "People always asked why Basic was different on all our machines," says Ahl. "My goal was to get the product out as fast as possible; if I had been a stickler for consistency, it would have taken another two years."
To overcome the lack of applications software, Ahl adopted a multi-pronged strategy. First, he bought books and programs from outside vendors, packaged them together in a big box, and gave this kit to each and every school that purchased a DEC computer. Ahl called this total system--hardware, systems software, and applications software--an EduSystem. This was the first bundled system offered by DEC, and perhaps by any computer manufacturer.
The second prong of attack was a newsletter called Edu. This was designed to be an interchange of information among all of DEC's educational customers--about 300 at the time. Ahl expected the newsletter to achieve a circulation of 2000-3000 (about ten per computer site). However, within 18 months, the circulation of Edu topped 20,000. "What happened," explains Ahl, "was that educators with non-DEC computers needed the very same information--so they subscribed too. I realized, too, that people used Edu to help decide whether to buy at all. It dawned on me then what a wonderful idea it would be to do an educational computing magazine that wasn't wedded to one particular computer manufacturer."
But the realization of his idea would have to wait a year and a half.
Ahl next wrote a series of booklets containing problems from textbooks, an explanation of how each could be solved with a computer, and a program to do so. The publication of these problems led to articles in various educational magazines (The Mathematics Teacher, The Science Teacher) and presentations at educational conferences.
In 1973, the U.S. economy was turning soft, and DEC responded in the same way as many other companies--with an order to cut expenses. In Ahl's Educational Product Line, that meant "relocating" two people. Ahl balked at this directive and so his group manager, Ed Kramer, decided that one of the people to be cut should be Ahl himself.
Ahl remembers the day quite well. "It was February 22, 1973. I was planning to go to New York to celebrate my father's 65th birthday and his retirement. Just before I was about to leave, Ed called me in and handed me a letter of resignation--my letter of resignation--and asked me to sign it. I was absolutely stunned. In a daze, I signed the letter and left for New York. I said nothing to my parents--I didn't want to spoil their celebration--but about halfway through what should have been a very happy dinner, I just burst into tears, and the whole story came tumbling out."
In a rather strange turn of events, a few days later, Dick Clayton, vice president of R&D at DEC, sked Ahl to join his group. "I was back on the payroll before I was ever off. In my new position--I don't think I had a title--I was able to pull together some loose ends. I wrote a 24-page brochure for RSTS, a system with magnificent capability, but that few people in the field really understood. I also put together a bunch of games I had written and collected from others and put them into a book, 101 Basic Computer Games. Six years later, in 1979, this became the first million-selling computer book ever."
The most interesting projects Ahl worked on were two prototype stand-alone computers. One was based on the VT-50 terminal and had a PDP-8/A computer crammed into the base of the unit. The other was based on the PDP-11 and was designed to fit into a very deep attache case. It also sported a small floppy disk drive. "I don't recall the exact size," says Ahl, "but it was smaller than the then-standard 8" drive. Unfortunately, it never worked very reliably." Ahl also explored the possibility of marketing these systems through various retailers of high-end products such as Hammacher-Schlemmer and Abercrombie & Fitch and marketing of kit versions through Heathkit.
Ahl presented a plan for further development of these products to DEC's operations committee on May 17, 1974. "The managers were divided right down the middle. The engineering guys loved it, but the salespeople were afraid it would disrupt DEC's normal sales patterns. It fell to Ken Olsen (president of DEC) to make a decision. I'll never forget his fateful word>, 'I can't see any reason that anyone would want a computer of his own.' In all fairness, Ken's thoughts were that anyone could have access to a powerful timesharing system and thus didn't need an individual PDP-8."
"Nevertheless, I was devastated. When the next headhunter called, I said OK, I'm ready. I left DEC in July 1974 and joined AT&T as Education Marketing Manager."
Had DEC gone ahead with the project, and marketed a stand-alone computer in 1974, it is likely that they would have dominated the personal computer industry--and that the entire industry would have developed quite differently. AT&T and Creative Computing
As soon as Ahl made up his mind to leave DEC, he started laying the groundwork for Creative Computing. He announced intentions to publish the magazine at NCC in June 1974 and over the next few months contacted prospective authors, got mailing lists, arranged for typesetting and printing, and started organizing hundreds of other details.
In addition, he also moved his family to Morristown, NJ, and settled into his new job at AT&T. He had little spare capital, so he substituted for it with "sweat equity." He edited submitted articles and wrote others. He specified type, took photos, got books of "clip art," drew illustrations, and laid out boards. He wrote and laid out circulation flyers, pasted on labels, sorted and bundled mailings.
By October 1974, when it was time to specify the first print run, he had just 600 subscribers. But Ahl had no intention of running off just 600 issues. He took all the money he had received, divided it in half, and printed 8000 copies with it. These rolled off the presses October 31, 1974. Ahl recounts the feeling of euphoria on the drive to the printer replaced by dismay when he saw two skids of magazines and wondered how he would ever get them off the premises. Three trips later, his basement and garage were filled with 320 bundles of 25 magazines each.
He delivered the 600 subscriber copies to the post office the next day, but it took nearly three weeks to paste labels by hand onto the other 7400 copies and send them, unsolicited, to libraries and school systems throughout the country.
He repeated this strategy of overprinting and using the extras for promotion for the next three issues and then decided to skip the July/August issue with the hope of catching up.
By August 1975, circulation had edged over 2500, but Ahl was faced with the prospect of worrying about renewals. More important, in January 1975, the first MITS microcomputer, the Altair 8800, was announced, and Ahl thought that it might represent a good alternative to a minicomputer for schools. Thus, Ahl started looking for people to write about this new breed of microcomputers.
Moreover, many of the first purchasers of microcomputers found that there wasn't much information on how to use them, short of making the lights on the front panel blink. They turned to Creative Computing with its tutorials and applications programs in Basic, and by mid 1976 the magazine was running material for two overlapping audiences educators and hobbyists.
Not knowing much about the magazine business, Ahl had not known the importance of advertising; nor had he counted on it. Amazingly, even without any advertising, by the end of the first year of publication, the magazine was actually making money. Of course, it was printed on a ground wood (newsprint) stock and was not paying any salaries at the time.
However, by late 1976, it was apparent that advertising was necessary for future growth, and Ahl decided the publication should "go slick." Hence, the November/December 1976 issue was printed on coated stock, and the doors were thrown open to advertising.
By 1978, circulation hit 60,000, roughly one-third educators and two-thirds hobbyists. Financial projections indicated that the total revenue would soon hit the $1 million mark, and Ahl decided it was time to leave his day job (by then he had been promoted to manager of marketing communications for the Bell System). He resigned from AT&T in July 1978, incorporated the company, and got down to some really serious planning for future growth.
Although Ahl had established Creative Computing Press in 1976, it had published just three books. He had started a mail order book service to handle the books of others, but it was floundering. Ahl had also started a software division (Sensational Software) to develop and market software for small computers, but it was resting on dead center.
In August 1978, Ahl acquired ROM magazine and two small newsletters, all of which were integrated into Creative Computing. In January 1979, he increased the publication frequency to monthly and published the first eight software titles, as well as two more books. In 1980, he started a hardware distributor, Peripherals Plus, acquired Microsystems magazine, and started SYNC magazine.
Having outgrown its original rented quarters in downtown Morristown in 1979, Ahl bought a two-family house to house the overflow. Having recently been divorced, he was planning to live in one half of the house. However, by the time the house was ready for occupancy, all but one single room was needed for the company. Ahl has mixed memories of the nights when Ted Nelson was editor. "Ted used to come in at 5:00 p.m. or so and work all night long. That was okay, except his word processor had a noisy Qume printer, which was located in the kitchen directly below my bedroom. I'd tell Ted every night to wait until morning to print his stuff out, but Ted would forget and, almost without fail, the printer would start up at 3:00 a.m."
"The other problem with having the system in the kitchen was that the IMSAI computer developed a habit of resetting itself whenever the refrigerator door was opened. But the house was fun," continued Ahl. "It gave us a feeling of camaraderie and it was a nice place for our Friday afternoon wine and cheese parties."
Today, Creative Computing is a rather different company. A new 25,000-square foot building was acquired in October 1980, but the big change came in 1981 when the company was acquired by Ziff-Davis Publishing Co.
In 1979, the large, established publishers began to notice this new industry and, with the purchase of Byte by McGraw-Hill, most of them decided to move into the area. "There was no way we were going to be able to compete with the million dollar circulation and advertising budgets of CBS, ABC, Hearst, and the others," said Ahl. "Furthermore, we had no clout on newsstands; we'd get shoved to the back row or not put out at all when the biggies came along. Hence, it seemed like a sensible move to merge with Ziff."
Ziff purchases paper by the train load and puts 28 magazines on newsstands every month. They have seasoned, sophisticated circulation and advertising sales departments. And they keep a close eye on profits. As a result, they immediately shut down Creative's software division, Peripherals Plus, and education center. They sold Small Business Computers magazine and shut down SYNC the day Timex announced it was withdrawing from the computer business.
As for Creative Computing itself, the editorial content is still fully under the control of Ahl and his staff.
Where is the magazine going? In the future as in the past, the direction probably will continue to evolve with the industry; indeed, it will probably lead the industry. Creative started as an educational magazine but quickly expanded its coverage to include hobbyists. When packaged systems came along in 1978, it shifted again with the market and covered the most popular applications--games and graphics. Today, it has further evolved to covering applications in business and personal productivity. "Because we've been around so long," said Ahl, "many people think we're the same today as when they picked up their first copy. To some people we're an educational magazine; to others, a hobbyist magazine; and to still others, a games magazine. If the only issue you saw was August 1984 (the Japan issue), you might think we were a competitor to Fortune. Actually, we are all of these things and more."
"Our goal is to be the very best general computer magazine in the world. That means honest, in-depth reviews of hardware and software. It means interesting applications, understandable tutorials, thought-provoking articles, meaty columns, and perhaps some whimsy. It means that every issue won't be the same, but every issue will be stimulating, interesting, and, we hope, memorable."
Named Works: Creative Computing (Periodical) - History