I got a push notification on my iPhone this afternoon that Steve Jobs had died earlier today. That in itself, as the President of the United States noted, was astonishing because so many of us learned the news the same way. Here’s a man who had a vision of where he was headed, stuck to his vision, and moved the world.

The first computer I ever saw was a TRS-80 Model 1 back in 1977. A friend invited me over to his house to see it. (He’s a Catholic priest now btw.) We programed a version of Star Trek on it and I had to teach myself linear algebra to do that.

He got a job the next year at a computer store and used his money to buy and Apple ][. Not a ][+ or a ][e, a ][. The graphics on that machine rocked our world. We played around on that all through senior year, and I learned Basic on it.

When I got to college the Astronomy Department had one of the new Apple ][+ computers, with two disk drives! I wrote my very first word processor on that and was the first student in the college to turn in a paper printed out on a dot matrix. I remember having to assure my English professor that the computer hadn’t really helped me to write the paper, it just made the editing easier.

We used that computer to measure fast Delta-Scuti type star’s light curves by running the signal from a photomultiplier tube (with suitable color filters) into the game ports. The game ports turned out to be a quick and dirty Digital to Analog converter (0-255) and we had some of the best data ever collected to that time as a result. Those were the same game ports we used to play Break Out with the computer when it was back in our T.A. offices.

When I saw my first Lisa (my brother in law’s) and realized the power of the desktop metaphor for operating a computer, my understanding of how symbols allowed us to organize our experiences was changed for ever. I suppose my fascination with Jesus’ use of the literary form of the parable is rooted in that moment. A computer that has driven a theological world view… amazing.

The first Macintosh I used was a 512k Fat Mac. I worked with a student of mine on a compiler that was optimized for scientific use, making it dead simple to create beautiful charts of data sets. Nothing ever came of it, but I got to use that Mac for a couple of months, and I fell in love with the elegance of the experience. At the time I was using four or five different operating systems and computers. I could never quite remember the commands for each system – they were all slightly different. The graphical metaphor meant that the file system just got out of my way and I could focus on the coding or the writing.

When it came time to upgrade the Apple ][+ that I been using (suitably tricked out with an 80 column graphics board and running CPM and Wordstar as an alternative operating system) I bought a Mac Plus and an Image Writer. That’s the system that got me through the last bits of the research toward my dissertation and then saw me through seminary at Yale. Oddly enough I collected the data for my still unfinished dissertation on a ][gs (though I used an RS232 interface that time rather than the old game port interface). The Mac Plus was the computer I knew the best of all of them. I used it to write Fortran code, analyze the data from my lab, write my papers on Patristic thought, do my Greek flashcards and pass the General Ordination Exams.

About the time that Steve Jobs left Apple, I bought my first Windows machine (Windows 3.2). I couldn’t afford a new Mac as a curate – my grandmother bought me the new windows computer (a 386sx) as an ordination present. That was the machine I installed Trumpet Winsock on and learned about the Internet. Archie, Veronica, Gopher, UUnet, Ecunet were the programs of the day. There was no www or http yet.

Years later, after a catastrophic hard drive failure, I called Brian Reid and asked him how to make this never happen again. He told me to buy an Apple. I listened. Bought an Apple Powerbook G4. That got me through the rest of the classes I was teaching at Lehigh and lasted 6 years of active duty. I’ve never had a computer last that long. It’s still around here. We use it as a back up.

Now I keep my life on my iPhone, my iPad and sync it all to my MacBook. So do my wife and my daughter. We use these sorts of computers because they still get out of the way when you’re creating and just let you do what you’re trying to do, make something that expresses something inside you.

My life is profoundly different because of the vision Steve Jobs had.

Did you notice that at the iPhone 4S presentation, there were some references to the Knowledge Navigator? It was a concept vision that Steve had during the end of his first stint as CEO of Apple. In the video it references a date of Sept. 2011. The 4S and the Siri assistance contained in the new phone achieves the vision of the concept video. It was only 4 days late.

That’s amazing. A vision that has been worked toward for almost 25 years. And achieved.

That’s what Apple has done. That’s what Steve Jobs drove.

Would that we could all have such single minded focus in our various callings and ministries and vocations.

Actually, why don’t we?


(More on this topic, written the next morning, here.)

Author: Nick Knisely

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...