ROM Magazine — Beginnings for Bigger things

One need only to look at the names listed in the contributing authors listings and the staff listings to get an idea as to the significance historically of a magazine. One such magazine was ROM – Computer Applications for Living, a magazine that had impressive beginnings and eventually became one of the portfolio of one of the most significant magazines of the 1970’s and 1980’s. That would be Creative Computing Magazine.

But we are getting just a bit ahead of ourselves here. ROM include names such as Lee Felsenstein, Designer of the SOL-20 computer from Processor Technology, Joseph Weizenbaum of MIT, best known as the creator of SLIP processing language as well as the horrifically insulting psycho-analyst program, ELIZA, Ted Nelson, the creator of HTML and other great writers. Even Stanley Veit wrote an articles for ROM. These authors accomplishments in the computer industry are legendary. As are the ideas that they put forth in the pages of their technology articles in ROM.

Where most magazines start off with the listings of their staff, ROM instead choose to highlight their contributing authors profiles. The main reason that much of this is lost on today’s generation of computer programmers and engineers is that these guys were not just well trained, well educated folks but that they had to know a lot about many different topics in order to accomplish the things they did. They were the actual creators of the industry as well as the educators who taught those of us in the next generation.

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The pages of ROM Magazine was full of great programming concepts, idealistic styles, robotics, artificial intelligence, LISP, 8080 and S-100 system type articles. David Ahl of Creative Computing Magazine knew this when he purchased ROM as part of a suite of smaller magazines that he combined to make Creative Computing a bit deeper with content. This not only gave him a sizable corner of the market but put him in direct competition with the granddaddy of them all, BYTE Magazine. Of course this was not real competition as both magazine’s staffs were quite friendly with one another with David Ahl and BYTE Editor, Carl Helmers creating the Best of BYTE which covered the first 6 issues of Byte Magazine.

While the addition was expected to get Creative Computing magazine over the top of the market, the reality is that most of the computers being covered in ROM were on their way out of fashion as well. The truth be told, ROM added a lot but Creative Computing was already heading towards the idea of putting programs in the magazine for the readers to type in. ROM did not have a lot of this type of article but was instead geared more towards the technical side of computing.

What ROM did have though was their centerfolds. The poster centerfolds were unique in each one with one of the cooler ones appearing in the 2nd issue. It shows 7 micron level view of bubble memory from IBM. The 4th issue contained a full blowup of the Zilog Z-80 chip as well. They also had ground level computing instruction in their magazine including binary language and also an article showing the proper way to solder, both very important skills at the time.

Other ROM highlights included a Payroll system, a Mailing List system Analog to Digital conversion and Music players courtesy of Dorothy Siegel and of course a full MIT course, or so it seemed from the legendary Joseph Weizenbaum. It was also probably the first magazine to predict the insertion of computers into the realm of sailing and to predict the idea that is so prevalent these days; sitting in the same room or at the same table and not needing to talk to communicate. Avery Johnson’s December 1977 article “Come Closer and we won’t even have to talk” was certainly an idea that was somewhat early but now that it is 2021 and onward, it is prevalent leaving Avery in the position of being somewhat of a prophet. But he also looked not just at the in room communications but also into other realms such as Air Traffic Control and Engineering.

While many magazines of the era were basically documentation and program type magazines, ROM took a full-faced engineering approach where documentation mattered. This means that many of the articles include Flowcharts which many people today do not even know anything about. They were well written, educational and informative and if you took anything away from the articles, you generally walked away knowing the things that most programmers got in their years of college in a compressed form from the people who developed the university programs.

The December 1977 issue of ROM also celebrated another well known main stay of society. R2D2 and Star-wars. The Centerfold of the month was the famed R2D2 unit instead of the usual computer ROM display. But then everyone was celebrating the same thing that month, showing little attention elsewhere in real society. And if you didnt have a skin for your robot, Stephen J. Chiodo fixed that issue for you. A bit funny at the time with everything from Human to Monstrous, now we have similar robots running around buildings, providing assistance to visitors, customers and the general public. Where will we be in another 40 plus years, one can only guess. But it was this adventure which was started in the 1960s and 1970s that we enjoy today. And if that wasn’t enough for you then Weizenbaum and AI Karshmer had their forays into Artificial Intelligence that have worked their way into almost every aspect of our online lives today.

And if you didn’t understand computer related mathematics after reading ROM magazine, then you probably didn’t read the Tom Pittman articles in the magazine. If you needed BASIC programs converted, then Gordon Morrison had Translate! which allowed users to convert their programs from MITS 8K BASIC to 8K Disk Extended BASIC 3.4.

One of my favorite articles from the magazine was the one by Tony Karp titled “Flowgrams – A New Programming Tool” (ROM Jan 1978 pp 37-47, Feb. 1978 pp 54-65). Tony was the CEO of TLC Systems, a company which at the time was focused on providing real-time systems for Micros and Mini Computers. When you look at this particular article, one cannot reject the idea of how much his idea of programming visually via flow chart type basis in pseudo code looks extremely similar to that wonderful MIT creation, Scatch! While obviously, this was all textual at the time and no graphics whatsoever, all of the basis for it is there and even the constructs presented are done so in a style that is very reminiscent of its modern day counterpart.

But like all things in life, ROM came and went and in a sign that times were changing rapidly, an article on the Commodore PET appeared page 27 of issue number 9 which was the March/April issue for 1978. There were in total, nine issues of ROM produced before it was incorporated into the Creative Computing realm. Unmistakable by its collection of interesting artistic covers drawn by a variety of artists, ROM definitely has its place in computing history and if you have not read these magazines, you definitely should.

Sadly some of the issues we found online when preparing to do this article was missing slates of pages but we have purchased duplicates of those issues with missing pages so at some point in the future, the full issues will come to light. In the meantime, we have zipped up the entire collection currently available for your perusal.

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