Who is the father of the Macintosh?
Who is the father of the Macintosh? The question is as intriguing for what it says about the Internet’s power over historical perception as for the merits of a particular candidate.
In the many-hands, vote-by-acclamation process afforded by the Web, the assumption is the truth eventually gets clarified by popular wisdom. If you search on a term, and a screen full of consistent entries appears, you tend to think you’ve got the real deal.
Often that indeed turns out to be the case. But consensus is an erratic arbiter of accuracy. Common wisdom holds that Henry Ford invented the automobile and Thomas Edison the light bulb. While both did a lot to popularize their new technologies, the historical record easily shows neither deserved “father of the” status.
My interest in Macintosh parentage originally was sparked last fall by the book “Revolution in the Valley,” by Andy Hertzfeld, a member of the original Macintosh team. It’s a highly engrossing history of Apple’s transformative computer, made all the more entertaining by sidebar contributions from many of the Mac’s legendary creators.
In the book’s final chapter, Hertzfeld thoughtfully addresses the question of Macintosh paternity. After arguing the case for each of a deserving list of candidates, Hertzfeld concludes that the mantle belongs to none other than Steve Jobs, largely because he shepherded the project to the market.
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In a book that helps set the record straight on several counts, Hertzfeld’s declaration surprised me. Although the question of Macintosh lineage might qualify as one of those frequently argued wastes of valuable time, the title usually goes to Jef Raskin, a brilliant technologist whose vision for a simple computer inspired the Macintosh project.
Raskin also drew together the original team and named the computer after his favorite apple (changing the spelling in a fruitless attempt to avoid trademark problems).
Curious, I went to the Web and searched several services for father of the Macintosh. Raskin’s name popped up, but the issue felt open-ended, in part because both keywords are so generic. The fact that Raskin’s name didn’t dominate said something.
Among computer insiders, the most energetic promoter of Raskin as the Mac’s paterfamilias was thought to be Raskin himself. Colorful and often cantankerous, Raskin never believed he got due credit after being shunted aside from the Mac project early on by the irrepressible Jobs.
Then something happened to change the picture. Raskin, 61, died from pancreatic cancer.
Suddenly mass media and the Web were rife with obituaries naming Raskin the father of the Macintosh. A couple of days after Raskin’s death Feb. 26, I did another Web search. Page after page of results identified Raskin as the Mac’s father.
From here on in, anyone doing a casual search for the father of the Macintosh, or for Raskin, will assume from the welter of hits that the issue has been settled. Macintosh mavens might still debate it, but “word of Web” has spoken.
Hertzfeld, for one, is sticking to his guns. In response to an e-mail query, he wrote back: “My feelings about ‘the father of the Mac’ haven’t changed one iota; why would a bunch of articles by people who don’t know what they’re talking about change anything?”
Because of the Internet, maybe?
Hertzfeld thinks the passage of time will set the record straight. And it should be noted that not all Web sources jumped on the Raskin bandwagon.
Search for father of the Mac on Wikipedia, a many-handed approach to historical rectitude, and you get no hits. Raskin has a long, laudable entry in the Web encyclopedia, but it studiously avoids crowning him the Mac’s father. Neither does it bequeath the title to Jobs.
No matter who deserves the distinction, the lesson of the Raskin case is that the Internet — and the truth — are still precariously susceptible to popular opinion.
Paul Andrews is a freelance technology writer and co-author of “Gates.” He can be reached at email@example.com