The Meaning of Hack
A Story About Magic
TV Typewriters: A Tale of Hackish Ingenuity
Here is a true story about a glass tty: One day an MIT hacker was in
a motorcycle accident and broke his leg. He had to stay in the
hospital quite a while, and got restless because he couldn't hack.
Two of his friends therefore took a terminal and a modem for it to the
hospital, so that he could use the computer by telephone from his
Now this happened some years before the spread of home computers, and
computer terminals were not a familiar sight to the average person.
When the two friends got to the hospital, a guard stopped them and
asked what they were carrying. They explained that they wanted to
take a computer terminal to their friend who was a patient.
The guard got out his list of things that patients were permitted to
have in their rooms: TV, radio, electric razor, typewriter, tape
player, ... no computer terminals. Computer terminals weren't on
the list, so the guard wouldn't let it in. Rules are rules, you know.
(This guard was clearly a droid.)
Fair enough, said the two friends, and they left again. They were
frustrated, of course, because they knew that the terminal was as
harmless as a TV or anything else on the list... which gave them an
The next day they returned, and the same thing happened: a guard
stopped them and asked what they were carrying. They said: "This is
a TV typewriter!" The guard was skeptical, so they plugged it in and
demonstrated it. "See? You just type on the keyboard and what you
type shows up on the TV screen." Now the guard didn't stop to think
about how utterly useless a typewriter would be that didn't produce
any paper copies of what you typed; but this was clearly a TV
typewriter, no doubt about it. So he checked his list: "A TV is all
right, a typewriter is all right ... okay, take it on in!"
[Historical note: Many years ago, "Popular Electronics" published
solder-it-yourself plans for a TV typewriter. Despite the essential
uselessness of the device, it was an enormously popular project.
Steve Ciarcia, the man behind "Byte" magazine's "Circuit Cellar"
feature, resurrected this ghost in one of his books of the early
1980s. He ascribed its popularity (no doubt correctly) to the
feeling of power the builder could achieve by being able to decide
himself what would be shown on the TV. --ESR]
[Antihistorical note: On September 23rd, 1992, the L.A. Times ran
the following bit in Steve Harvey's `Only in L.A.' column:
It must have been borrowed from a museum: Solomon Waters of
Altadena, a 6-year-old first-grader, came home from his first day of
school and excitedly told his mother how he had written on "a machine
that looks like a computer-but without the TV screen."
She asked him if it could have been a "typewriter."
"Yeah! Yeah!" he said. "That's what it was called."
I have since investigated this matter and determined that many of
today's teenagers have never seen a slide rule, either.... - ESR]
--The Jargon File version 4.3.1, ed. ESR, autonoded by rescdsk.