Pacific Tech's Graphing Calculator
has a long history. I began the work in 1985 while
in school. That became
and later became part of
Over the last twenty years, many people have
contributed to it. Graphing Calculator 1.0, which
Apple bundled with the original PowerPC computers,
originated under unique circumstances.
I used to be a contractor for Apple, working on
a secret project. Unfortunately, the computer we
were building never saw the light of day. The
project was so plagued by politics and ego that
when the engineers requested technical oversight,
our manager hired a psychologist instead. In August
1993, the project was canceled. A year of my work
evaporated, my contract ended, and I was
I was frustrated by all the wasted effort, so I
decided to uncancel my small part of the project. I
had been paid to do a job, and I wanted to finish
it. My electronic badge still opened Apple's doors,
so I just kept showing up.
I had many sympathizers. Apple's engineers
thought what I was doing was cool. Whenever I gave
demos, my colleagues said, "I wish I'd had that
when I was in school." Those working on Apple's
project to change the microprocessor in its
computers to the IBM PowerPC were especially
supportive. They thought my software would show off
the speed of their new machine. None of them was
able to hire me, however, so I worked unofficially,
in classic "skunkworks" fashion.
I knew nothing about the PowerPC and had no idea
how to modify my software to run on it. One August
night, after dinner, two guys showed up to announce
that they would camp out in my office until the
modification was done. The three of us spent the
next six hours editing fifty thousand lines of
code. The work was delicate surgery requiring
arcane knowledge of the MacOS, the PowerPC, and my
own software. It would have taken weeks for any one
of us working alone.
At 1:00 a.m., we trekked to an office that had a
PowerPC prototype. We looked at each other, took a
deep breath, and launched the application. The
monitor burst into flames. We calmly carried it
outside to avoid setting off smoke detectors,
plugged in another monitor, and tried again. The
software hadn't caused the fire; the monitor had
just chosen that moment to malfunction. The
software ran over fifty times faster than it had
run on the old microprocessor. We played with it
for a while and agreed, "This doesn't suck" (high
praise in Apple lingo). We had an impressive demo,
but it would take months of hard work to turn it
into a product.
I asked my friend Greg Robbins to help me. His
contract in another division at Apple had just
ended, so he told his manager that he would start
reporting to me. She didn't ask who I was and let
him keep his office and badge. In turn, I told
people that I was reporting to him. Since that left
no managers in the loop, we had no meetings and
could be extremely productive. We worked twelve
hours a day, seven days a week. Greg had unlimited
energy and a perfectionist's attention to detail.
He usually stayed behind closed doors programming
all day, while I spent much of my time talking with
other engineers. Since I had asked him to help as a
personal favor, I had to keep pace with him. Thanks
to an uncurtained east-facing window in my bedroom,
I woke with the dawn and usually arrived ten
minutes before Greg did. He would think I had been
working for hours and feel obliged to work late to
stay on par. I in turn felt obliged to stay as late
as he did. This feedback loop created an
ever-increasing spiral of productivity.
People around the Apple campus saw us all the
time and assumed we belonged. Few asked who we were
or what we were doing.When someone did ask me, I
never lied, but relied on the power of corporate
apathy. The conversations usually went like this:
Q: Do you work here?
Q: You mean you're a contractor?
A: Actually, no.
Q: But then who's paying you?
A: No one.
Q: How do you live?
A: I live simply.
Q: (Incredulously) What are you doing here?!
At that point I'd give a demo and explain that
the project had been canceled but that I was
staying to finish it anyway. Since I had neither a
mortgage nor a family, I could afford to live off
savings. Most engineers at Apple had been through
many canceled projects and completely understood my
Apple at that time had a strong tradition of
skunkworks projects, in which engineers continued
to work on canceled projects in hopes of producing
demos that would inspire management to revive them.
On occasion, they succeeded. One project,
appropriately code-named Spectre, was canceled and
restarted no fewer than five times. Engineers
worked after hours on their skunkworks, in addition
to working full time on their assigned projects.
Greg and I, as nonemployees who had no daytime
responsibilities, were merely extending this
tradition to the next level.
In September, Apple Facilities tried to move
people into our officially empty offices. They
noticed us. The Facilities woman assumed that I had
merely changed projects and had not yet moved to my
new group, something that happened all the time.
She asked what group I worked in, since it would be
that group's responsibility to find me space. When
I told her the truth, she was not amused. She
called Security, had them cancel our badges, and
told us in no uncertain terms to leave the
We were saved by the layoffs that began that
month. Twenty percent of Apple's fifteen thousand
workers lost their jobs, but Greg and I were safe
because we weren't on the books in the first place
and didn't officially exist. Afterwards, there were
plenty of empty offices. We found two and started
sneaking into the building every day, waiting out
in front for real employees to arrive and casually
tailgating them through the door. Lots of people
knew us and no one asked questions, since we wore
our old badges as decoys.
We were making great progress, but we couldn't
get it done alone. Creating sophisticated software
requires a team effort. One person can use smoke
and mirrors to make a demo that dazzles an
audience. But shipping that to a million customers
will expose its flaws and leave everyone looking
bad. It is a cliche in our business that the first
90 percent of the work is easy, the second 90
percent wears you down, and the last 90 percent -
the attention to detail - makes a good product.
Making software that is simultaneously easy to
learn, easy to use, friendly, useful, and powerful
takes people with an incredible combination of
skills, talent, and artistry working together with
intensity and patience. Greg and I could do the
core engineering, but that was a far cry from
creating a finished product.
Among other things, we needed professional
quality assurance (QA), the difficult and
time-consuming testing that would show us the
design flaws and implementation bugs we couldn't
see in our own work. Out of nowhere, two QA guys we
had never met approached us, having heard about our
venture through the rumor mill. (We had become a
kind of underground cause célèbre.)
Their day job, QA-ing system software, was
mind-numbingly boring. They volunteered to help us,
saying, "Let's not tell our boss about this, OK?"
One guy had a Ph.D. in mathematics; the other had
previously written mathematical software himself.
They were a godsend. They started right away.
Next, we needed help writing software to draw
the three-dimensional images that our software
produced. A friend with expertise in this area took
a weekend off from his startup company to write all
of this software. He did in two days what would
have taken me a month.
My skunkworks project was beginning to look real
with help from these professionals as well as
others in graphic design, documentation,
programming, mathematics, and user interface. The
secret to programming is not intelligence, though
of course that helps. It is not hard work or
experience, though they help, too. The secret to
programming is having smart friends.
There was one last pressing question: How could
we get this thing included with the system software
when the new machines shipped? The thought that we
might fail to do this terrified me far more than
the possibility of criminal prosecution for
trespass. All the sweat that Greg and I had put in,
all the clandestine aid from the friends,
acquaintances, and strangers on whom I had
shamelessly imposed, all the donations of time,
expertise, hardware, soft drinks, and junk food
would be wasted.
Once again, my sanity was saved by the kindness
of a stranger. At 2:00 one morning, a visitor
appeared in my office: the engineer responsible for
making the PowerPC system disk master. He explained
things this way: "Apple is a hardware company.
There are factories far away building Apple
computers. One of the final steps of their assembly
line is to copy all of the system software from the
'Golden Master' hard disk onto each computer's hard
disk. I create the Golden Master and FedEx it to
the manufacturing plant. In a very real and
pragmatic sense, I decide what software does and
does not ship." He told me that if I gave him our
software the day before the production run began,
it could appear on the Golden Master disk. Then,
before anyone realized it was there, thirty
thousand units with our software on the disks would
be boxed in a warehouse. (In retrospect, he may
have been joking. But we didn't know that, so it
allowed us to move forward with confidence.)
Once we had a plausible way to ship, Apple
became the ideal work environment. Every engineer
we knew was willing to help us. We got resources
that would never have been available to us had we
been on the payroll. For example, at that time only
about two hundred PowerPC chips existed in the
world. Most of those at Apple were being used by
the hardware design engineers. Only a few dozen
coveted PowerPC machines were even available in
System Software for people working on the operating
system. We had two. Engineers would come to our
offices at midnight and practically slip machines
under the door. One said, "Officially, this machine
doesn't exist, you didn't get it from me, and I
don't know you. Make sure it doesn't leave the
In October, when we thought we were almost
finished, engineers who had been helping us had me
demonstrate our software to their managers. A dozen
people packed into my office. I didn't expect their
support, but I felt obliged to make a good-faith
effort to go through their official channels. I
gave a twenty-minute demonstration, eliciting
"oohs" and "ahhs." Afterward, they asked, "Who do
you report to? What group are you in? Why haven't
we seen this earlier?" I explained that I had been
sneaking into the building and that the project
didn't exist. They laughed, until they realized I
was serious. Then they told me, "Don't repeat this
The director of PowerPC software was an academic
on leave from Dartmouth. The director of PowerPC
marketing was the son of a math teacher. Seeing the
value of putting this educational software on every
Macintosh in every school, they promptly adopted
Then things got really weird. The QA manager
assigned people to test our product. (I didn't tell
him that those people were already working on it.)
The localization group assigned people to translate
it into twenty languages. The human interface group
ran a formal usability study. I was at the center
of a whirlwind of activity. Nevertheless, Greg and
I still had to sneak into the building. The people
in charge of the PowerPC project, upon which the
company's future depended, couldn't get us badges
without a purchase order. They couldn't get a
purchase order without a signed contract. They
couldn't get a contract without approval from
Legal, and if Legal heard the truth, we'd be
escorted out of the building.
Greg was lurking outside one day, trying to act
casual, when another engineer accosted him and
said, "I'm sick and tired of you guys loitering in
front of the building every day!" Later he phoned
the appropriate bureaucrats on our behalf. I
listened to his side of the conversation for twenty
minutes: "No, there is no PO, because we're not
paying them. No, there is no contract, because they
are not contractors. No, they are not employees; we
have no intention of hiring them. Yes, they must
have building access because they are shipping code
on our box. No, we don't have a PO number. There is
no PO, because we're not paying them." Finally, he
wore them down. They said to use the standard form
to apply for badges, but to cross out
Contractor and write in Vendor. Where
it asked for a PO number, we were to use the magic
words "No dollar contract." We got badges the next
day. They were orange Vendor badges, the same kind
the people working in the cafeteria, watering the
plants, and fixing the photocopy machines had.
Official recognition made life exciting.
Suddenly even more people became enthusiastically
involved. When formal usability testing with
students and teachers began, we discovered, again,
that we were far from being done.
I had long been proud of the elegance and
simplicity of our design. I wanted our program to
ship with every Macintosh, so I had designed it for
all users, even those who know little about
computers and hate math. I wanted to make
mathematics as easy and enjoyable as playing a
game. In a classroom, any time spent frustrated
with the computer is time taken away from teaching.
Sitting behind a two-way mirror, watching
first-time users struggle with our software,
reminded me that programmers are the least
qualified people to design software for novices.
Humbled after five days of this, Greg and I went
back and painstakingly added feedback to the
software, as if we were standing next to users,
explaining it ourselves.
Our recognition made life interesting in other
ways since we could no longer remain a well kept
secret. After a demo to outside developers, one
person called Apple claiming that we infringed his
patent, causing a fire drill until I could show
prior art. Another company, the makers of
Mathematica™, simply demanded that our product
be pulled. Apple very politely declined. One week
we were evading security, the next week Apple is
rising to our defense.
By November, we were in full crunch mode,
working sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, and
feeling the pressure. The home stretch was a blur -
wake up, grab a bagel, eat it while driving, work
till we drop, sleep, repeat. If this story were a
movie, you would now see the clock hand spinning
and the calendar pages blowing away in the wind.
We finished in January 1994. Graphing Calculator
has been part of the Macintosh ever since. Teachers
around the world use it as an animated blackboard
to illustrate abstract concepts visually. It
shipped on more than twenty million machines. It
never officially existed.
Why did Greg and I do something so ludicrous as
sneaking into an eight-billion-dollar corporation
to do volunteer work? Apple was having financial
troubles then, so we joked that we were
volunteering for a nonprofit organization. In
reality, our motivation was complex. Partly, the
PowerPC was an awesome machine, and we wanted to
show off what could be done with it; in the Spinal
Tap idiom, we said, "OK, this one goes to eleven."
Partly, we were thinking of the storytelling value.
Partly, it was a macho computer guy thing - we had
never shipped a million copies of software before.
Mostly, Greg and I felt that creating quality
educational software was a public service. We were
doing it to help kids learn math. Public schools
are too poor to buy software, so the most effective
way to deliver it is to install it at the factory.
Beyond this lies another set of questions, both
psychological and political. Was I doing this out
of bitterness that my project had been canceled?
Was I subversively coopting the resources of a
multinational corporation for my own ends? Or was I
naive, manipulated by the system into working
incredibly hard for its benefit? Was I a loose
cannon, driven by arrogance and ego, or was I just
devoted to furthering the cause of education?
I view the events as an experiment in subverting
power structures. I had none of the traditional
power over others that is inherent to the structure
of corporations and bureaucracies. I had neither
budget nor headcount. I answered to no one, and no
one had to do anything I asked. Dozens of people
collaborated spontaneously, motivated by loyalty,
friendship, or the love of craftsmanship. We were
hackers, creating something for the sheer joy of
making it work.
After six months of grueling unpaid labor, Greg
couldn't explain to his parents what he had done.
They didn't use computers, and the only periodical
they read was the New York Times. So as the project
was winding down, I asked Greg if he wanted his
photo in the Times so his parents would know what
he was up to. He gave the only possible response:
"Yeah, right." We made a bet for dinner at Le
Mouton Noir, a fine French restaurant in Saratoga.
To be honest, I expected to lose, but I made a
phone call. Greg doesn't bet against me any more:
On March 11, 1994, the front page of the Times
business section contained an article on the
alliance among Apple, IBM, and Motorola, picturing
Greg and me in my front yard with a view of the
Santa Cruz Mountains. Someone I knew in Apple
Public Relations was livid. I had asked if she
wanted to send someone for the interview, but she
had said that engineers are not allowed to talk
with the press. It's hard to enforce that kind of
thing with people who can't be fired. It was
positive press for Apple, though, and our parents
We wanted to release a Windows version as part
of Windows 98, but sadly, Microsoft has effective
Postscript: After the events
described, we made everything retroactively
legitimate by licensing the software to Apple for
distribution. Pacific Tech started a few years
later, and continued to develop Graphing
Calculator, both in new free versions that Apple
bundled with Mac OS 8 and Mac OS 9, and commercial
releases. Visit http://www.PacificT.com/FreeStuff.html to download the software.
Download Graphing Calculator Viewer for
X, Mac OS
9, or Windows
design lessons of the Graphing Calculator
The discussion on
Story Hour Video (Ron's
Tech Talk at Google)
(Ron's Graphing Calculator blog)