GUI Bytes

Twenty Years Ago, Part 5 - I/O

part 4 - CPU

part 6 - side effects


A smart computer isn't much good if you can't talk to it or figure out what it tells you. Early models had a series of dials or switches that had to be set in a certain way, or someone had to punch holes in cards and feed them to the machine so it would understand what it was supposed to do. Then, after performing the calculations, the answer would be displayed as a series of lights or meter readings. Even if answers were printed, they weren't something you would read if you didn't have to.

One of the keys to the success of the personal computer was the development of input and output methods, eventually leading to the use of the PC by people with no knowledge whatsoever of what computers are or how they work. The common typewriter keyboard was an obvious improvement, as was the use of a monitor to display what was being entered.

Another important part of the input/output (I/O) process is the computer program. Early programming was done in machine language, consisting of a series of zeros and ones (binary math). Programming quickly evolved to resemble normal English, with words that had obvious meanings being interpreted by the computer as binary code.

The most common use of today's computer - word processing - would not exist without software that lets users type, format fonts, display pages as they will print, and send documents to a printer without knowing much at all about the computer. Other application programs allow us to create spreadsheets and databases, browse the Internet and use e-mail, and play games without a thought about what makes it all happen.

Another boost to the computers popularity was the ability to display graphic images. Early PCs were text-only machines, which obviously limited their use to things that could be expressed in letters. Some adventurous souls realized that typing certain combinations of characters would look like a picture when held at arm's length, but this wasn't really using graphics. (See for examples of this arcane art form. If you have some time to kill, watch the original Star Wars in ASCIImation at

The mouse was one of the great inventions in the computer world, an essential element of the graphic user interface (GUI) most of us use today. The GUI allows users to perform operations simply by "clicking" on items in drop-down menus, or on icons (small images) that represent those items. This is not only faster than typing our commands on the keyboard; it means that users do not have to remember all of the commands that would otherwise have to be known to operate a program.
(See the winter 2002 issue of Invention and Technology magazine for an interesting article about the creation and development of the mouse. Read it on line at

My QX-10 had an interesting keyboard, one that was an integral part of that computer's software. Its function keys were grouped according to function, and each was labeled with its function.

The QX-10's mouse was optical, a technology that was ignored in favor of the mechanical mice that dominated the computer industry until recently. However, today's optical mice are clearly superior to the QX-10's, which required use of a special mouse pad. Today's mouse also has much higher resolution, but that was not really required back then, as it was not used for pointing or drawing; the graphic user interface was then still in its infancy.

2003 Sheldon Wolfe, RA, FCSI, CCS, CCCA
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