Easel 1980s: Touch Screens too soon?

What became of MIT Rocket Scientists after their glory days? In my case, startups to exploit the strengths, and mitigate the weaknesses, of desktop personal computers. Think back (if you can!) to those pre-Internet days when a personal computer was just that: a box on your desk with a keyboard to type data in, a screen to display it as text or minimal graphics, and a printer so you could print your results, stick the paper in an envelope, and mail it somewhere.

There were digital communications, but for any distance you had to wire an "RS-232" cable between your computer and a Bell System DataPhone, and arrange for the people on the other end to do likewise. Most connectivity took the form of a Local Area Network (LAN), hard-wired with RS-232 cables or IBM 3270-protocol cabling.

But aside from communications, the major problem was the rapidly growing number of people who had computers on their desks and very little idea of how to interface with them. We nerds picked up the Unix tools developed by Bell Labs' ultra-nerds; obscurely coded command syntax was old home week for us. If you ever used a Unix "string editor" called sed, you know how far from user-friendliness one can go.

The new invention that promised relief from this bind was the touch screen -- mice came along a little later. The company founded on an MIT touch-screen patent was originally called Iconics, then Interactive Images, and finally (outside the time frame of this page) Easel Corp. We hoped to lead the world to the new standard by supplying customers with our high-level "Easel" language software to create and use the touch-screen overlays we fitted to their display screens.

Being a bunch of MIT wise guys, we thought in terms of "serious computing" applications: air travel reservations, industrial process control, express truck routing, big-bank foreign exchage trading, and all sorts of things the world wasn't ready to consider. After three years of going almost nowhere, some of us started strapping on conceptual parachutes. We might have been more of a success if we'd realized that the first touch-screen application to take off would be the simple 10-key screens in bars and restaurants ... or if we'd gotten 25 years of venture capital to wait for the market to materialize!

Foreign exchange traders' workstations? Well, that at least led somewhere ...