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How I Found Apple: The Projectionist's Computer

Steve Jobs 1955 - 2011 - Candles - Rose - iPhone

Like millions, I caught the news about the death of Steve Jobs glancing at Twitter on my iPhone after dinner. I was seeing the fire hose of social media reaction 45 minutes after major news outlets broke the story. Rather than gorge on tweets and obits, I decided I needed to gather some things to make a little shrine (pictured above) to burn off some nervous energy and collect my thoughts. The trip to the grocery store to pick up candles and roses, and subsequent camera fiddling, brought back memories of my first encounter with an Apple product.

My brother and I were working as movie theater ushers in high school when Apple Computer began its first meteoric rise to success. It was 1978 and the box office hits for which we managed crowds at the KB Langley Theater in suburban Washington, D.C. included Grease, Animal House and Heaven Can Wait. And we stood in long lines around the block waiting to see Star Wars the summer before.

It was easy then to see and feel the mechanical form of movies. The 35mm film for each new release arrived at theaters in very heavy octagonal metal boxes containing 20-minute segments on several steel reels. The ushers were always given the task of lugging the film boxes up to the project booth so that the projectionist could begin the necessary splicing to make up the full-length feature.

Our theater had transitioned to a " platter" system that held all the spliced together reels of film in a continuous coil that relieved the projectionist of the task of having to do "changeovers," which entailed loading up the 20-minute reels by hand alternating between two huge Century-brand projectors. The projectionist (most were unionized then) would watch for subtle cue dots that would appear at the end of each live reel and then stomp a foot switch to trigger the start of the other projector with the next reel, and shutdown the live projector. The platter system reduced wear on the film and eliminated the possibility of getting the reels mixed up.

With less to do during each showing, our projectionist began to bring his 35 lb. Apple II computer in two big canvas bags to set up on a desk in his projection booth to help pass the time. The Apple II had a base the size of three stacked medium pizza boxes and an integrated keyboard. A 12" diagonal monochrome monitor was placed on top and a floppy disk drive alongside. A fistful of data cables and power cords brought the stack to life.

My brother and I had used the desk-sized teletype terminals at our high school to access a mainframe computer, but we had never seen a computer that could be hauled around casually by one person. Our new computer pal was easygoing and eager to show off his new technology, demonstrating the hot new productivity and games "apps" of the day. So it wasn't long before my brother, who was more technically inclined at the time, became hooked on the Apple II and we had one at home.

We've both owned computers ever since. My brother became a software programmer after college. It's a career that, to this day, has made him an expert in many types of computer hardware and software languages. I, however, became enamored with the arts and entertainment and got promoted to working in that same projection booth through college. I remember being laughed at for bringing the first 16 lb. Macintosh into a traditional graphic design class. I, too, brought that luggable Mac into the projection booth to help pass the time. Apple computers, then laptops, then phones, then tablets, have carried my career through decades of exciting work in print, web and mobile content.

But if I were to revisit the location of the Langley Theater today, the surrounding strip mall would be emblematic of the radical changes that have taken place in media industries. The nearby bookstore and vinyl record store are long gone. Video rental shops came and went. The phone booths have been removed. The newspaper boxes are nowhere to be found. And the theater is no more. These physical media are now digital information stored in vast data centers that are accessed wirelessly from the thin slab of aluminum, glass and silicon in my pocket called the iPhone 4.

Apple will continue to work relentlessly to simplify and miniaturize their products to a point in the future where I think computers themselves might become embedded in our surroundings and largely disappear from our awareness. It saddens me to think that Steve will miss this ultimate singularity of simplicity. When computers become invisible, what's left will be people and their stories. If that can bring us closer together as a race, a few billion thank yous to you Steve!

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