Coding in Paradise

About Brad Neuberg

Learn about the Little-Known iPad-like Device from the 1980s That Inspired Hypercard

Interesting, just stumbled on this; evidently the ground-breaking HyperCard software that the amazing Bill Atkinson created had earlier roots in an iPad-like device that would emulate books at a closer level in the early 1980s, named the Magic Slate:

Even though Apple had become marginalized, it was still enamored with the notion of the 'Dynabook' and the company's eventual aim was still to produce a cheap portable device that would bring to its users text, sound, images and video. In one of the early Macintosh development meetings Steve Jobs had announced the aim of 'Mac in a book in five years'. This was a project that was pursued with zeal. When he first encountered this Apple ethos John Sculley commented: 'It was almost as if there were magnetic fields, some spiritual force, mesmerizing people. Their eyes were just dazed. Excitement showed on everybody's face. It was nearly a cult environment.' One of the computer engineers at Apple, Bill Atkinson, designed a Magic Slate inspired by Kay's Dynabook. Magic Slate was to have a flat liquid crystal display, be the size of a very thick notepad and be controlled by a stylus through a touch-sensitive screen. You could view and 'turn' pages by swiping the screen with the stylus. When the company declined to develop the idea Atkinson produced a software version that would run on the Macintosh. Atkinson changed the interface book metaphor to one based on 'stacks' of index cards that could be linked to each other in any number of possible ways. Atkinson called this program 'HyperCard', acknowledging his debt to the originators of the hypertext concept: Bush, Engelbart, and Nelson.
Richard Wise, Multimedia: A Critical Introduction [1999], pages 50 and 51

There's not much information on what this Magic Slate device was. There's another reference in the classic HyperCard book The Complete HyperCard Handbook (1987) with an interview with Bill Atkinson, written BTW by the early JavaScript pioneer Danny Goodman:

GOODMAN: Where did the idea for HyperCard come from?

ATKINSON: There were a lot of roots to it. One of the early contributors was the Magic Slate project that I worked on for a while, but that was later cancelled. Magic Slate was a laptop computer that had a full-page display and an all-graphical interface. We worked out some neat paradigms for breaking down the barriers to applications.

GOODMAN: Why was Magic Slate dropped?

ATKINSON: It couldn't really happen in a short time frame. It wouldn't be cost effective for a lot of people. It would be too expensive for many people to get their hands on it.

GOODMAN: What happened then?

ATKINSON: So I backed down to saying, "How much of what I've learned or dreamed about here in Magic Slate could I do on today's generation of computers?"

I started thinking that many more people would have a use for a computer if it did some different things than it does now. Right now, they're used mostly for word processing and spreadsheets and, I guess, lately, some graphics applications. But, I thought, in order to use one of those applications, you have to see yourself as being a creator of information. What do you do about the consumer of information? There are maybe twenty times as many people who want to read information.

Danny Goodman, The Complete HyperCard Handbook [1987]
Tenth issue of Wired Magazine

The final reference to the Magic Slate I can find is from a Wired magazine article by the ever great Steven Levy, in only the tenth issue of Wired magazine in 1994. The article is titled Bill and Andy's Excellent Adventure II and focuses on the ill-fated General Magic appliance:

Bill [Atkinson]'s problem with his employer's oversight was not so much ego, as a matter of his deeply ingrained sense of fairness. Bill has a radar for the personal angle, and the idea of one person gaining an unearned edge over another is loathsome to him. One-on-one he is an intense communicant. Bill is an eye-contact person, giving you total attention, really wanting to know how you are doing, how you are feeling. He hugs. And he thinks that "business as usual" is no excuse for not doing what's right.

The second thing crucial to Bill is his need to get his products out into the world. He bears scars from those times when a project of his failed to reach the public. He loved the idea that Apple bundled his MacPaint with every Macintosh, and he was crushed when the company decided that his post-Mac project, a flat-pad communicating computer called Magic Slate, was too esoteric a product to begin developing in 1985. He went into a depression, not working for months, until one night he wandered out of his house in the Los Gatos hills, stared at the star-filled sky, and had an epiphany: In the face of the awesome celestial epic, what was the point of being depressed? All you could do, really, was use your abilities to do what you could to make a little part of the universe better. And Bill Atkinson went back into the house and began using his abilities to work on a new project that would become known as HyperCard.

Steven Levy, Bill and Andy's Excellent Adventure II

I reached out to Bill to ask him if he had any more details on the Magic Slate; this is what he said over email:

Magic slate was still just in the ideas stage. I made some drawings and notes about how it would work, but we never had an actual working prototype.  Yes, it was one of the conceptual ancestors of the iPad, but so was Alan Kay's DynaBook.

It's too bad that the iPad, which is the actual instantiation of the Magic Slate more than 25 years later, still doesn't have something like HyperCard, which would truly empower everyone to create interactive content and software.

Subscribe to my RSS feed and follow me on Twitter to stay up to date on new posts.

Please note that this is my personal blog — the views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.

Back to