A Software Legend That Really Happened
If this is your first encounter with The Story of Mel, odds are you will not understand it. There are numerous barriers along the way: Most of the technologies and programming languages featured in the story have either gone extinct, or were relegated to esoteric niches in the software universe; a general understanding of digital computing hardware is required, but this is no longer part of the curriculum of CS students; Familiarity with early computing history can help, but that period is mostly undocumented. Thus, reading The Story of Mel is likely to be an uncomfortable experience, but even so, one can hardly miss the sense of elation out of which the words were born. It is clearly the result of a noble encounter between man, machine and language. The cathartic experience hinges on rather complex technical understanding, but it is clearly the "desired outcome" of reading a story.
Therefore, when faced with the gap between the undeniable charm of this tale and your ability to understand the details that make it up, please remember: it is neither a story nor a poem, but rather an ancient post, an early net relic, conceived to impart some basic computing sense to the generation of reckless coders that sprung up in the early 80's. Since then, the story has been preserved across various network archives, hidden in broad daylight, visible to few and coherent to even fewer, until its present status as a computing myth.
The Story Line
The story recounts a meeting between two young programmers - Ed Nather (the author) and Mel - in Los Angeles of the late 50's. The venue: Royal McBee Computer Corp, a company that manufactured first generation electronic computers. The tale revolves around a Blackjack game that Mel had coded, some 60 years ago. The game quickly became a success, to the point of serving as the company's flagship software that consistently won applause in computer trade shows. Its success even inspired some MIT computer science students to hold digital card game events on campus. When Mel left the company, apparently due to an ongoing conflict of values, Ed was tasked with diving into the Blackjack code in order to implement some changes required by marketing. This endeavor turned into a sleuthing journey, seeking to extract a clear picture out of Mel's code, but instead discovering a maze of instructions adorned by a seemingly endless and pointless code loop. While excavating the logic out of this cryptic pile of instructions, Ed slowly changed his perspective, until the magic became apparent. "When the light went on", he would write 30 years later, "it nearly blinded me".
It's almost too easy to to view this story as a classic "good vs evil" conflict: a lone "genius" standing his ground against the "evil corporation", or a technological knight deflecting the moral depravity of the rising big business. However, it is also a story about collegial respect, shifting perspectives and the precedental mental encounter between first generation computers and coders. Beyond these perspectives, the story showcases the budding tension between management and marketing on the one hand, and software engineers on the other. This atmosphere of plots, deviance and often stupidity is reminiscent of comics strips like xkcd and Dilbert that capture the awkward encounters between bureaucracy and technology.
The Story of Mel is an epic text in hacking folklore, an unofficial genre which includes an eclectic and rather substantial collection of relics from the early digital sphere; This period spans the first three decades of the computer era, from the first machines to the commercial production of personal computers and the birth of the global network (~1950-1983). Hacking folklore stories are anecdotal tales, written and published in what was then a budding ultra modern medium; they document various events and cases from the forefront of the computing revolution; they often showcase conflicts between the values of individuals, systems and the latest arrival to the global stage - the computer. Most importantly - they sometimes capture moments in which the border between logic and magic blurs away.
In this framework, The Story of Mel is the broadest preserved text, depicting the moment that hitec was born. This era, of which little documentation and relics remain, directly beget the contemporary digital culture. The basic tension that the story describes might have taken different shapes along the years, but its essence has been preserved: On the one hand, the purism of the coders, who view the machine as an almost magical extension of their faculties; they focus their efforts and priorities on maximizing this unprecedented benefit, by virtues such as ellegance, brevity, abstraction and efficiency. On the other hand - a developing business world which, although encouraging innovation and divergence, views the intellectual adventure through the prism of profit and resource allocation. From the coder's perspective, it is a struggle not only between styles, but for the legitimacy of striving toward personally defined perfection, even when the latter is completely opaque to the people footing the bill.
This story opens a door to an old and outdated world, in which our world was forged, bit by bit. As the years go by, computerized existence blends into more parts of our lives; The implicit perspective in The Story of Mel belongs to a world in which the connection between the computer and life itself emerges. The appearance of this connection was spontaneous, unchecked, incisive like a bolt of lightning and likewise blinding and momentary. In its wake, it has left a long rumbling thunder which continues to shake our digital existence to this very day.
Research and Translation
While translating the story, some questions surfaced and re-surfaced. Not only did I not find authoritative answers - it seemed that no one had even asked them before: When and where exactly did the story take place? What happened to the people involved? What events led up to the plot? Above all, I was curious about Mel himself - where was he and did he read the story? While it turned out that his full name was already known - Mel Kaye - no other significant details were known. These unresolved questions and the mystery around Mel's figure launched me into another round of research.
Naturally, the first datum I needed to clarify was the veracity of the story and the real identity of Mel. These doubts have been completely disspelled. The story is indeed an accurate account of real events and Mel was a real person. Melvin Kornitzky (1931-2018) was born to a Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York. The family relocated to California and Mel changed his name twice during his adult life (Melvin Kornitzky -> Melvin Kaye -> Mel Kaye). It might have been an attempt to play down his Jewish identity, perhaps a step to help him become a true star in the West coast technology scene. A self-contracted detective project ensued, uncovering Mel's blurry footsteps and yielding many related stories.
The translation of The Story of Mel required a significant effort on my part, to catch up on the technological and historical knowledge required to fully understand the story. This effort included deep dives into archives, books, interviews and old computer manuals. The gist of this information is provided in the footnotes and comments, alongside the translated story, hopefully making it easier to read and appreciate. These additions will hopefully open a door for non-technical readers into the world of Hacking folklore. Heretofore, the story hasn't been discussed in a literary context. Its publication in a literary journal is unprecedented, possibly for any story about code or hacking.
I'm grateful to David Frenkiel, my partner in this project. Ten years ago, he (virtually) handed me a copy of the story, with a simple and assertive demand: "read". His contribution to deciphering archaic code and obsolete technology, as well as understanding the spirit of the "real programmer", enlightened me time and again both as a reader and as a translator of this epic.