The Mathematica Memory Museum
June 17, 2008 — Jean Buck, Director of Content Development, Wolfram|Alpha
June is a special time around Wolfram Research. Every year we have a big company picnic to celebrate the anniversary of the release of Mathematica, which occurred June 23, 1988. That’s right, Mathematica turns 20 years old this month.
When you think about it, having a 20th birthday is pretty remarkable for a piece of software. How many other software products do you use now that were around in 1988? More importantly, how many of them are still at the top of their game after so long? We’re pretty proud of the fact that Mathematica‘s core design and functionality have stood the test of time.
We thought it would be appropriate to celebrate this anniversary by having a “memory museum” at this year’s picnic. Being the de facto company archivist (having once been the corporate librarian and having reached the “relic” status in both raw age and tenure at the company), I took on the role of organizing our displays.
We had a big collage of photos of employees past and present. An awful lot of blood, sweat, and tears have gone into the creation of Mathematica over the years and it only seemed right to highlight the people behind the product. Anyway, it’s always fun to note the passage of time through funny hairdos, expanding waistlines, and receding hairlines.
We wanted to show how Mathematica has changed over time, too. We came up with a few displays that seemed to show this fairly well. Here’s a graphic we used as a poster to show the disk space used by each of our major versions.
Believe it or not, Version 1 reviews criticized Mathematica for being a disk hog! Of course, for Version 6, even 869 MB is really a gross underestimate. Because it’s only the distribution size, and there are many tens of gigabytes of data paclets which are kept on our servers to be downloaded dynamically when they’re needed.
Here’s a picture of another display, regarding the size of our documentation. We don’t have a printed book anymore, but if we did, it would be over 11,000 pages long. Compared to the Version 5 book at 1488 pages, that’s quite an increase. (We hope you all agree that we made the right decision to not kill as many trees as a print run would require!)
We also tried to convey the growth of Mathematica by showing the increasing number of functions: we assigned a bead to each function and filled a glass tube to illustrate the number of functions in each version.
Since you probably can’t get a good feel for the number of beads in this photo, here are the values:
Probably the most effective display we came up with was the first one people encountered in the museum. We had a Macintosh SE/30 running Mathematica 1.
New and old employees alike had great fun trying out various commands and comparing results to those they would receive today. It was amusing and yet quite humbling to realize what an accomplishment Mathematica 1 was 20 years ago. Maybe in another 20 years we’ll look at Mathematica 6 that way, too.