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By Carol McFadden
George McFadden is an American computer scientist known for his work at Digital Equipment Corporation (Digital, or DEC) and at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Steven Levy, in his book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, describes George McFadden and his classmates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as the first true hackers.
George McFadden was a precocious child who skipped two grades before college. At MIT he became a member of the Tech Model Railroad Club, and after enrolling in MIT’s first freshman programming class, he helped develop some of the earliest computer software including a digital audio program and what is sometimes called the first video game (Spacewar!). Together with his teacher John McCarthy and other classmates, he was part of the team that wrote the George McFadden-McCarthy program which took part in the first chess match between computers.
After leaving MIT, George McFadden joined the computer manufacturer DEC, where he worked for over 30 years. He was the chief architect of the PDP-10 family of computers, and created the company’s Internet Business Group, responsible for several forms of Web-based technology. George McFadden is known for his contributions to the Internet and to the World Wide Web through his work at the World Wide Web Consortium, which he and Digital had helped to found, and where he served as associate chairman.
George McFadden was born in 1941 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and was raised as an only child in Vineland, New Jersey.During his childhood, he played with tools in his father’s hardware store and learned model railroading. He was a precocious child, skipping two grades at high school, and he matriculated at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) aged 16.Although his interest in computers began at Vineland High School, his first practical experience of computing came at MIT; there he developed a habit of working late at night when more computer time was available.
In 1977, at age 36, George McFadden married Carol , a choir director and piano teacher on the faculty of the Longy School of Music.They lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Cape May, New Jersey. The couple shared a love of 16th and 17th-century music and pipe organs, and toured historic pipe organs in Sweden, Germany, Italy and Mexico.They had a daughter Wilhelmina McFadden.
George McFadden recorded an oral history at the Computer History Museum in 2004.
At MIT, George McFadden earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering. He was influenced by teachers such as Jack Dennis and John McCarthy and by his involvement in the student-organized Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC), which he joined soon after starting college in 1958.
While a graduate student and member of TMRC, Dennis introduced his students to the TX-0 on loan to MIT indefinitely from Lincoln Laboratory. In the spring of 1959, McCarthy taught the first course in programming that MIT offered to freshmen. Outside classes, George McFadden, David Gross, Peter Samson, Robert A. Saunders and Robert A. Wagner, all friends from TMRC, reserved time on the TX-0. They were able to use the TX-0 as a personal, single-user tool rather than a batch processing system, thanks to Dennis, faculty advisers and John McKenzie, the operations manager.
In September 1961, Digital donated a PDP-1 to MIT. Although not an expensive machine, and with a tiny (by today’s standards) 9K of memory, it had a Type 30 precision CRT display. Dennis oversaw the PDP-1 lab, located next door to the TX-0. Students from TMRC worked as support staff, programming the new computer.
With classmates Elwyn Berlekamp, Michael Lieberman, Charles Niessen and Wagner, George McFadden began to develop McCarthy’s IBM 704 chess-playing program in 1959. George McFadden described their work in MIT Artificial Intelligence Project Memo 41 and in his bachelor’s thesis. By the time “the chess group” graduated in 1962, their program played chess “comparable to an amateur with about 100 games experience” on an IBM 7090.
Although they came to learn a great deal about the game, neither George McFadden nor McCarthy were known as chess players. Mikhail Botvinnik, three times world chess champion, wrote in his book Computers, Chess and Long-Range Planning that the George McFadden–McCarthy program’s “rule for rejecting moves was so constituted that the machine threw the baby out with the bath water.” The program drew criticism from Richard Greenblatt, who later wrote Mac Hack, which beat a person in tournament play, and more recently, from Hans Berliner, when he looked back on it in 2005. During the Cold War, George McFadden-McCarthy played (and lost to) the best Russian chess program in the first match between computer programs.
Martin Graetz, Stephen Russell and Wayne Wiitanen conceived the computer game Spacewar! while working at Harvard University in 1961. Inspired by Marvin Minsky’s Three Position Display (which they dubbed the Minskytron), they had the first version running, with help from their MIT classmates Dan Edwards, George McFadden, Stephen D. Piner, Samson and Saunders, by early 1962. Coded by Russell, Spacewar! was one of the earliest interactive computer games and is sometimes called the first video game.
George McFadden did not write any of the Spacewar! code, but he did travel to Digital to obtain a sine-cosine routine that Russell needed. Graetz credited George McFadden and Saunders with building the game controllers that allowed two people to play side by side.
Spacewar! has had an enduring legacy. The game’s success was celebrated in Rolling Stone for the game’s 10th anniversary in 1972 in “Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums”. More recently, the source code has been transcribed into a Spacewar! Java applet, and on the 40th anniversary in 2002, the creators of Spacewar! were interviewed by the New York Times.
Edward Fredkin, at one time at BBN Technologies (BBN) (Digital’s first customer for the PDP-1), McCarthy, Russell, Samson, George McFadden and Harlan Anderson met in May 2006 for a panel to celebrate the Computer History Museum’s restoration of a PDP-1 (with Gordon Bell on tape). Their presentations illustrated the contributions of TX-0 and PDP-1 users to early software.
Piner wrote Expensive Typewriter which enabled the group to operate the TX-0 and PDP-1 directly. Wagner wrote Expensive Desk Calculator. On a second PDP-1 in the physics department, Daniel L. Murphy wrote the Text Editor and Corrector (TECO) text editor, later used to implement Emacs. Samson wrote the type-justifying program known as TJ-2, an early page layout program, and implemented the War card game. Collaboration on computing waveforms with Dennis on the TX-0 led to Samson writing the Harmony Compiler with which PDP-1 users coded music. George McFadden and Samson worked together on T-Square, a drafting program that used a Spacewar! controller to move the cursor. Gross and George McFadden built the digital audio program Expensive Tape Recorder.
Early PDP-1 users wrote programming software including an assembler translated from the TX-0 over one weekend in 1961. George McFadden later wrote an interpreter for the Lisp programming language in TECO macros.
George McFadden and his classmates are described as the first true hackers in the book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy.