The geek

By Simson Garfinkel

When Chris Schmandt was an undergraduate at MIT in 1977, he saw an advertisement for a campus job doing “graphics programming in PL/I.” It paid the same amount as his burger-flipping gig in the cafeteria, he’d learned the PL/I programming language as a computer science and engineering major, and he liked the idea of a job that didn’t require showering at the end of each shift. So he went to work for Nicholas Negroponte’s Architecture Machine Group (AMG), the forerunner of the MIT Media Lab.

The job involved programming a Model 85 frame buffer, which was one of the first computer graphics systems that could render a “frame” of colored pixels, allowing the machine to display text, graphics, diagrams, and even color photos. But first, somebody needed to write the low-level microcode for the frame buffer’s controller. Somebody had to procure fonts and code them up, too. That person was Schmandt. “I started painting pixels on the screen and I was hooked,” he says.

That job had huge ramifications, not just for Schmandt but for all of us: his work ultimately led to the development of modern navigation systems like the Garmin GPS and Google Maps, as well as the voice interfaces that people are increasingly using to interact with computers.

Related Content