I was writing my PhD thesis in Berkeley in 1985-86 period. When Mac was released in 1984 and they came for a demo to Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (LBL), many scientists loved the idea of Mac and they placed orders then and there. I offered to set up the first Mac that arrived in my group. Once I did that, I had to do that for each of the subsequent Macs that arrived in the group.
What this did was to put many Macs on the desks of scientists but secretaries were using Wang Word processing system. Publication Division in LBL would only accept that document, which was prepared using Wang. This resulted in very peculiar situation since scientists would write letters/reports/documents and it would be printed and then retyped by secretaries. This not only resulted in wastage of time and effort of secretaries but also of scientists(they had to proofread it second time!).
When I was writing my PhD thesis, I also wrote that straight in Mac(in fact I did not use a single piece of paper in that process!). However it looked too bad for me to use the usual method of printing the whole document and letting secretaries type it all back(and that too with plenty of mathematical expressions!).
So I decided to do something about this so that this double work could be avoided. I decided to spend time to write a software that would allow my document to be transferred to Wang in a way that it preserved all the details of the original document. As Pascal was the native language of MacOS, I borrowed a compiler from Comp Sci division of LBL. I guess I must have spent 50% of my thesis writing time on developing that software which would not only convert the document of Mac (written in MacWrite format) to that used in Wang but also electronically transfer them. At that time we did not have compatible floppies or networking to do that.
I almost succeeded in doing this but Mac changed its version of MacWrite from 1 to 2 and made complete change in the way document was stored to reduce the size. They used the concept of representing 15 most used letter by “nibble” (a 4 bit number). In addition they also did many more changes. This took me extra effort but finally I could manage to even tame this beast!
Now my effort was to transfer this document between two systems. For this I connected the two of them by a RS-232 cable and added feature to my converter to set communication parameters and transfer. All this resulted in my thesis not needed to be typed two times! However fun was not over yet.
When I went to return the compiler to the Scientist in the Comp Sci division from whom I had borrowed Pascal Compiler, he asked me what I did with that. I explained to him. He asked me about my topic of PhD thesis and I explained to him that it is related to “Nuclear Fusion”. He seemed amused that I was working on this software but asked me if I could give him a copy of it. I said I do not mind but it is not properly documented code though I had prepared a brief user manual. He said that is ok with him. So I handed it over to him.
After this I came back to India to join Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata. May be after a year or so I got in touch with Secretary (Tina – who is unfortunately no more) through email. She informed me that whole of LBL is now using my software since it was published in LBL newsletter and it served need in all groups!
I guess that was my first entry to Open Source Software development 🙂