There were three main dimensions to how I grew up:
Jerry Pournelle dramatically affected each of these for me. Here’s how:
If you strip everything else away from me, at my core, I am a reader, specifically of the science fiction variety – and this goes all the way back to my childhood. I’ve been reading as long as I can remember and it pretty much always has been science fiction. I got started early with the Heinlein juveniles and it wasn’t a far leap from Heinlein to Jerry Pournelle. I still remember when the librarians let me move from the kids section of the library to the adult section and that’s where I found him - King David’s Spaceship, West of Honor, Lucifer’s Hammer, Oath of Fealty and more. And I can remember devouring Jerry’s work in Analog both under his name and under “Wade Curtis” when I started buying back issues and I remember having this one in my collection.
A good author, whether fact or fiction, imparts something to his readers far beyond the story and what Jerry Pournelle gave to me was a deep appreciation for engineering and just plain rationality. Thanks Jerry!
Right along side reading for me was computing which I discovered in the 7th grade in Wilton, Connecticut at the school’s computer lab (a selection of TRS-80 Model 1s). A trip to the local Walden Books made me aware of Byte Magazine way back in April 82 with this issues:
That issue is still in my office and as I write this it is on my desk; I’ve owned it since I was 14 years old.
And if I’m being honest, well, I understood about 1 word in 20, mostly the adjectives but what I did find actually not only readable but just plain joyful was Chaos Manor, Jerry Pournelle’s column. From that point forward, I read Byte for Jerry’s column and he was the person who gave me a deep love for computing in general and software in specific. I can remember hours upon hours in my college library devouring back issues of Byte Magazine once I found their periodicals section.
Finally I became aware of hypertext from things written in Byte Magazine – and my first startup was a hypertext company. If not for Jerry addicting me to Byte Magazine, I might never have known about it and my whole life would have been different.
Note: If you didn’t read Jerry back in the day then you don’t understand what a colossus Jerry was in small computing. Computing was deeply different in those days, a much smaller community and if you were influential, well, you were important. This was a man who knew everyone – Bill Gates, Marvin Minsky, Steve Wozniak and more. According to Jerry, Byte Magazine paid him $10,000 per month to write that column and that’s a fair bit of $$$ even today – back in the early 80s, that was a king’s ransom just to write a monthly computer column.
I started my first company, a software firm building hypertext tools, when I was 19 and the very first copy of software I ever sent to a reviewer was sent to Jerry Pournelle. He didn’t cover it then and it took repeated copies that we kept sending him until November 26, 1990 when he did give us some coverage in his Infoworld column. A huge amount of what I know about the software business, specifically about writing good documentation, providing good technical support and just plain listening to customers, I learned from Jerry and his long tales of Zeke, the S100 bus and more. Jerry wrote about computing from the user’s perspective and he gave a large number of us a deep appreciation for the user.
Rediscovering Jerry Pournelle Through Twit
Despite the deep impact that Jerry Pournelle has had on my life, I haven’t thought much about Jerry for a long time now – Byte is long gone and the pace of his fiction output has decreased and his Chaos Manor column on the web didn’t resonate for me in the same way as his print column. But thanks to Leo Laporte’s excellent TWIT show on YouTube, I have been able to discover him all over again:
There are some amazing stories here:
- In Twit 90, he talks about making nitroglycerin at age 12
- In Twit 95, he talks about the act of god that led him into freelance writing and then discussing the probability of it with Marvin Minsky (Minsky created Lisp and founded the MIT AI lab)
- In Twit 95, we talks about Robert Heinlein and the problem with being a best selling author, no one has the guts to edit you: “Time Enough or Love – there are three good novels there, shouldn’t they be three good novels?” (loose paraphrase but it is pretty close)
In Twit 90, Jerry describes his Byte writing as “I wrote the Field and Stream column” and that analogy instantly brought all of his computing writing into focus for me since I actually grew up hunting and reading Field and Stream.
Thank you very, very much Leo for doing these interviews, listening to you talk with Jerry for a few hours means a huge amount to me.
Goodbye Jerry, you’ll be missed but your influence is still alive and well.