For a time in the late 1950s and early 1960s I was picking up a goodly fraction of my annual earnings by talking for pay to almost any audience that cared to hear me. That included groups of all kinds, from colleges to fraternal organizations. I didn’t much care which, although I have to say that talking to, for instance, management groups had some significant advantages.
Not in terms of money, as you might have imagined, though. Some of the biggest and richest management groups were also among the thriftiest when it came time to write a check. That was all right, they explained to me, because what I was really doing was building a career. Every time I spoke to a management audience there would be two or three people among them who had just been told to organize a speaker of their own, so I would have a continuing schedule of dates. That wasn’t untrue, although my new clients knew exactly what I was being paid for my present appearance — because they’d asked their old pal the chairman during the coffee break — and saw no reason to raise it.
Management groups did have one definite advantage over other audiences, though. Management people like to have a little luxury around them when they toil, so they try to make sure their toiling is done in really neat places. My first visits to Hawaii, the Florida Keys and some interesting foreign cities — not to mention any number of pricey resort hotels and country clubs all over the U S of A — were all speaking dates.
And what did I talk about to these junior captains of industry? That took a little working out. At first I talked about things that were likely to happen in the future, but I quickly discovered that there were only two kinds of things that brought them cheering to their feet when I was through. One was the scary kind — a hit by a good-sized asteroid, an ice age, a nearby supernova — and the other was the funny.
Fortunately for my career, there was a lot of funny stuff going on in scientific research if you knew where to look for it. I did know. Science has always been my favorite amusement and I kept up with what was going on. Besides reading all three of the major science news weeklies — Science, Nature and New Scientist — and assorted other magazines and journals, I was lucky enough to have a lot of friends who were scientists and were generally happy enough to take a little time to tell me what they, and others in their fields, were doing.
At the Harvard-Smithsonian in Cambridge, Massachusetts, one astronomer was figuring out what Stonehenge in England had been built for, all those thousands of years ago, while another had — for fun — converted all the ancient sightings of Mars that Tycho Brahe had given to Johannes Kepler, and Kepler had used, by 1609, to establish that the planet’s orbit was not a circle but an ellipse. (Reconciling those data points took Kepler over seven years. My Harvard-Smithsonian friend did the arithmetic on a computer, and it took about seven and a half seconds.) Meanwhile, less than a mile away, at MIT, a kid named Marvin Minsky was trying to build an Asimovian robot one part at a time — an arm here, an eye there, a hand somewhere else.
That was not the only thing going on at MIT’s computer lab, either. Earlier still, so early that it may actually have been even before Marvin Minsky, someone had produced what they called the Spacewar game. It ran off a PDP-1 computer (think of a couple of side-by-side file cabinets with a screen the size of a lady’s pocket handkerchief). The screen displayed two quarter-inch rocket ships, shaped more or less like artillery shells and not at all like anything I ever saw at Star City or the Cape.
Each ship came with a hand controller with four buttons — one to make the ship go forward, one each to turn it left or right, and the fourth to fire a space torpedo in whatever direction the ship was aligned with when you pressed the firing button. The object of the game was to torpedo the other guy’s spaceship before he torpedoed yours.
It was a fun game, not to say an addictive one. I played it a couple of dozen times and was shot down in flames every last time. But I would gladly have kept on playing it indefinitely, if I could have, and so would my audiences when I told them about it. And no wonder, because that was, I think, the very first computer game ever.
And if any one of us (for instance, I) had had the presence of mind to put a call in to a patent attorney who knows what wealth he (or I) would be rolling around in today.