[TUHS] Fun with early troff.

Ron Natalie ron at ronnatalie.com
Wed May 9 03:44:37 AEST 2018

I started with roff (the simplest but utterly frozen) and moved up to nroff.   It was a few years later I was involved with a rather project to make a CAT phototypesetter emulator for the Versatec printer-plotter (similar to the BSD vcat, which we had not seen yet).   My friend George Toth went to the Naval Research Laboratory and printed out the entire typeface on their CAT on transparent film.     Then he set out to figure out a way to digitize it.

Well, next door the the EE building (where the UNIX work took place at JHU) was the biophysics department.   They had Scanning Transmission Electron Microscope there, quite an impressive machine.    The front end of the thing was a PDP-11/20 with some digital to analog converters and vice versa and a frame buffer.    The software would control the positioning of the beam and read back how much came through the material and was detected.     Essentially, you were making a raster picture of the sample in the microscope. 

George comes up with this great idea.    He takes a regular oscilloscope.   He takes the deflection wires from the 11/20 off the microscope and puts them in the X and Y amplifiers of the scope.   He then put a photomultiplier tube in the shell of an old scope camera.    He'd cut out a single character and tape it the front of the scope and hang the camera  on it.   He'd fire up the microscope software and tell it to scan the sample.    It would then put the image in the frame buffer.   We'd pull the microscope RK05 pack out and boot miniunix and read the data from the frame buffer (why we didn't just write software to drive the A2D from miniunix I do not recall).

Eventually, George gets everything scanned in and cleaned up.    It worked somewhat adequately.

Another amusing feature was that Michael John Muuss (my mentor) wrote a macro package tmac.jm.    Some people were someone peeved that we now had a "nroff -mjm" option.

Years later after ditroff was in vogue, my boss was always after me to switch to some modern document prep (Framemaker or the like).   On one rough job I told him I'd do it but I didn't have time to learn framemaker.
I write one page of this proposal, print it and then go on.   My boss would proof it and then my coworker would come behind me and make the corrections.   I ended up rewriting a million dollar (a lot of money back in 1989 or so) proposal in two days, complete with 25 pages of narrative and may be 50 pages of TBL-based tables showing compliance with the RFP.    We won that contract and got several follow ons.

Years later I was reading a published book.   I noted little telltale bumps on the top of some of the tables.   I wrote the author..."Did you use tbl and pic to typeset this book?"    Sure enough he had.   But it was way after I thought anybody was still using  such technology.   Of course, I was happy when Springer-Verlag suddenly learned out to typeset books.    I had a number of their texts in college that didn't even look like the put a new ribbon in the typewriter when setting the book.

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