Museum adds 'beautiful' MacPaint code to collection

'Revolutionary' code from 1984 art program available for download

Beauty and poetry are terms often applied to works of art or literature. However, for computer programmers, those two words can also be used to describe a few lines of great code.

Such is the case for the collection of words and numerals which form the underlying structure of MacPaint, the seminal Apple computer illustration program. Released in 1984, MacPaint changed the way people thought about personal computers, according to the president of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.

That code -- all 5,822 lines of it -- is now a part of the Computer History Museum's collection.

"We think it's a really important thing for the museum," John Hollar, president and CEO of the museum, said of having the code for the program that "caused everyone to re-imagine what a computer could really do."

The code was made available to the public as a free download through the museum's website on July 20. About 75,000 people downloaded the code in the first 24 hours after it became available, and 30,000 grabbed the code over the course of the next day, Hollar said.

Hollar recalls being astounded, 26 years ago, at the program's capabilities. The black and white program allowed him to draw lines of varying thickness with a mouse, using the pencil and paintbrush tools; the lasso tool allowed Hollar to select portions of a picture and then fill the selected area with a shade or pattern using the paint bucket tool. Perhaps the most revolutionary, at least in Hollar's mind, was the ability to save an illustration on a floppy disk, take that disk to a friend's house, open it on their Macintosh and continue working on the project.

"That was just unheard of," he said. "But all of a sudden, with MacPaint, there it was. We take that for granted these days. In 1984 that was truly revolutionary."

MacPaint helped establish Apple as the artist's computer, he added. Up until MacPaint, computers were for crunching numbers, word processing and other tasks centered around productivity. "The Macintosh all of a sudden made people think about creativity."

Hollar said MacPaint is not only important because it helped people think about computers in a new way. Its underlying code is also rather extraordinary, he said.

"It's funny to think about code being beautiful," he said. But that is exactly how Hollar's friend, who has written code for IBM, described it.

"There is a tremendous amount of functionality packed into very little space," Hollar explained. Back when MacPaint was written, codes had to be small because computer memory was still very expensive and microprocessors were limited in their ability.

"It's as if you had to publish the Mountain View Voice on the front and back of a single sheet of news print and still get into it everything you do today," he said.

The functionality of the code, Hollar said, awed coders. "To be able to paint the pictures you could with MacPaint was something no one had ever put in the hands of the masses before."

Also available for download is the source code for QuickDraw, the program that allowed the Macintosh to create the bit-mapped MacPaint graphics. QuickDraw was written using only 17,101 lines of code.

Today, Hollar said, there are millions of lines of code in an operating system like Apple's OS X or Windows' Vista.

As such, he doubts if anyone will find the code useful in any commercial context. However, he mused, it may provide inspiration for future coders, who will be able to see that "there's a different way of going about things. It may lead to someone innovating in a whole new way."



Like this comment
Posted by Steve Schramm
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Aug 3, 2010 at 2:51 pm

Congratulations to Bill Atkinson for this awesome piece of work and for getting it into the museum. Can't believe he wasn't mentioned or credited in the article.

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