On hearing of his death, I thought to update his Wikipedia page, but found none. I collected much information from fellow Asilomar attendees, and drafted a page for him, which is has been published. Most of the best stories about John have no chance of satisfying Wikipedia's strict standards for sourcing and relevance, so I have collected some below the fold for posterity.
|John H. Wharton by Mark Dahmke|
Oblique PerspectiveJohn was a founding member of the editorial board of Microprocessor Report, writing for it frequently. His opinion columns were often contrarian, and ended up being called "Oblique Perspective". A collection from August 1988 to August 1995 includes among others:
- Architecture vs. Implementation in RISC Wars (8/88)
- Unanswered Questions on the i860 (5/89)
- The "Truth" About Benchmarks (5/18/90)
- Does Microcomputer R&D Really Pay Off? (9/19/90)
- Have The Marketing Gurus Gone Too Far? (5/15/91)
- A Software Emulation Primer (10/2/91)
- The Irrelevance Of Being Earnest (4/15/92)
- Why RISC Is Doomed (8/19/92)
- Brave New Worlds (12/9/92)
- Breaking Moore's Law (5/8/95)
- Is Intel Sandbagging on Speed? (8/21/95)
The red Porsche 944
|John's prize 944|
- Go ahead and enter. No-one else will, and you can't win otherwise.
Another department staged a single-board-computer design contest, with development systems and in-circuit emulators worth thousands of dollars as prizes. Their most creative entry proposed to install computers in public lavatories to monitor paper towel and toilet paper consumption and alert the janitor if a crisis was imminent. No one could tell if the proposal was a joke, but it won top honors anyway.
- Consider what the sponsor really wants.
So the best way to win is to reverse engineer the sponsor's intentions: figure out what characteristics he'd most like to publicize and then put together an application-possibly contrived-with each of these characteristics.
- Keep it really, really, really simple.
The judges will have a number of entries to evaluate, and those they understand will have the inside track. ... It's far better to address a real-world problem the public already understands so they can begin to grasp your solution and see the widget's advantages immediately.
- Devote time to your entry commensurate with the value of the prize.
The entry form may request a five-line summary of your proposal and its advantages, but this isn't a quick-pick lottery. If the contest is worth entering, it's worth entering right, and neatness counts.
The Porsche was worth about $25,000. Based on the tum-out of previous contests, I guessed Seeq would get at best four other serious entries, which put my odds of winning at one in five. That justified an investment of up to $5,000 worth of my time - about two weeks - enough to go thoroughly overboard on my entry.
It seems my expectations were overly optimistic on two fronts. I'd underestimated the number of competing designs by an order of magnitude, and while my entry's basic concepts and gimmicks were all developed in one evening, it took a week longer than I'd planned to debug the breadboard and document the design.
Even so, I, too, was happy with the results. Some months after the contest ended - on my birthday, by happy coincidence -! got the call. My lock had been judged best-of-show; I'd won the car. The award ceremony - with full media coverage - was one week later.
So, if you notice a shiny, red, no-longer-new Porsche cruising the streets of Silicon Valley, sporting vanity plates "EEPRIZ," you'll be seeing one of the spoils of design contests. Fame and fortune can be yours, too, if you simply apply a little creative effort.
The Asilomar Microcomputer WorkshopAMW started in 1975 with sponsorship from IEEE. David Laws' writes in his brief history of the workshop about the first John attended and spoke at:
The last IEEE-sponsored workshop in 1980 featured a rich program of Silicon Valley nobility. Jim Clark of Stanford University spoke on the geometry engine that kick-started Silicon Graphics. RISC pioneer Dave Patterson of UC Berkeley covered “Single Chip Computers of the Future,” a topic that evolved over the subsequent year and led to his 1981 “The RISC” talk. In 2018 Patterson shared the Turing Award with John Hennessy of Stanford for their work on RISC architecture. Gary Kildall, who both influenced and was influenced by discussions at the workshop, described his PL/I compiler. Designer of the first planar IC and the first MOS IC, Bob Norman talked about applications of VLSI. Carver Mead capped this off with a keynote talk on his design methodology.John started chairing sessions in 1983, and became Chair of the workshop in 1985, a position he continued to hold through 1997. He was Program Chair from 1999 through 2017. The format, the eclectic content, and the longevity of AMW are all testament to John's work over three decades.
The title of John's 1980 talk was "Microprocessor-controlled carburetion", which presumably had something to do with ...
Engine Control ComputersIn Found Technology (4/17/91) John recounted having a problem with his Toyota in Tehachapi, CA and attempting to impress the Master Mechanic:
"In fact, I developed Ford's very first engine computer, back in the '70s." That should impress him, I thought.Stan Mazor recounts the early history of engine control computers:
He pondered briefly, then asked: "EEC-3 or -4?"
Damn! This guy was good. "I thought it was EEC-1," I began, trying to remember the "electronic engine control" designators. "It was the first time a computer ... "
"Nah, EEC-1 and -2 used discrete parts," he interrupted. "EEC-3 was the first with a microprocessor."
"That was it, then. It had an off-the-shelf 8048."
"You mean you designed EEC-3?" the Master Mechanic asked incredulously. "Hey, George!" he shouted to the guy working under the hood. 'When you're done fixing this guy's car, push it out back and torch it! He designed EEC-3!"
So much for impressing the Mechanic. "Huh?" I shot back defensively. "Did EEC-3 have a problem?"
"Reliability, mostly," he replied. "The 02-sensor brackets could break, and the connectors corroded."
I beat a hasty retreat. "Those sound like hardware problems," I said. "All I did was the software."
While an App Engineer at Intel, GM engaged me to help them design a car that used an on board computer to do lots of stuff, even measure the tire pressure of a moving vehicle. Little did I understand at the time that auto companies HATED electronic company's components, and their motive was to prove that computer chips COULD NOT be used. I only learned that late in their project work. When VW announced and demonstrated an on board diagnostic computer, the auto industry (USA) was hugely embarrassed and tried to catch up with VW.
Due to pollution and government mandates, Ford implemented a catalytic converter with a Zirconium Oxide sensor. Their 8048 computer measured the pollution, and servo'd the car's carburetor mixture of fuel and oxygen. (recall ancient cars had a manual choke). John and his associate were Intel app engineers on the project. As I best recall their program used pulse-width duty cycle modulation to control the 'solenoid' controlling fuel mix, (Hint: too lean, too rich, too lean, too lean, etc.)
Now comes the interesting story: Cranking the starter on a cold car, injected huge transient voltage into the CPU, and scrambled the program counter, and the app could start at any instruction, no that's not quite the issue.
The 8048 has 1 and 2 byte instructions, so the program counter could enter up at any byte, yes, the middle of an instruction and interpret that byte as an op code, even if it was a numeric constant, or half of a jump address !!!
No that's only half the story: It turns out that one of the 8048 instructions is irreversible under program control and the only way out (of mode 2), was to hit the reset line!!!. So the poor guys (John) had to re-write their code to insure that no single byte of object code could be the same as that magical (and unwanted) instruction operation code.
Autonomous VehiclesIn 1988 Bruce Koball and John published A test vehicle for Braitenberg control structures. The abstract reads:
This paper describes the implementation of model vehicles with neural network control systems based on Valentino Braitenberg's thought experiment. The vehicles provide a platform for experimentation with neural network functions in a novel format. Their operation is facilitated by the use of a commercially available neural network simulator to define the network for downloading to the vehicles.
|Koball & Wharton, Figure 2|
The network model implemented in the current firmware is similar to that used by MacBrain, a neural network simulator for Macintosh computers, ... MacBrain allows the user to create and edit networks on screen, load and save network definitions to disk, and run simulations of networks while observing the changing activation of the various network units.In "Further Work" they wrote:
One area of potential interest not addressed in initial version of the vehicle's network simulation model was the dynamic alteration of network parameters during operation based on sensory input and network activation. While any of the network's parameters could be changed in this manner, the most likely candidate would be the link weights. The alteration of link weights based on some criteria is a widely used model for "learning" in neural network experimentation and, indeed, is thought to be part of the mechanism for learning and memory in real biological nervous systems.
John's 15 Minutes Of Fame
|Goal-Oriented Design Pays Off!|
In 1996, when the Letterman show came to San Francisco, Mr. Wharton made a calculated effort to get noticed. He figured out which seats the camera would be most likely to focus on and made sure that he was seated there. He made himself conspicuous by undoing his ponytail and donning a tie-dyed shirt. He looked ''just like the sort of San Francisco hippie'' the show's producers would expect to see, he said.John relived this experience for KPIX-TV on May 14, 2015.
It worked. Mr. Letterman himself strode into the audience, asked Mr. Wharton his name, then asked if he would agree to take a shower in the host's dressing room -- an ongoing gag of Mr. Letterman's. Mr. Wharton happily obliged. The cameras followed Mr. Wharton, from his torso up, as he disrobed, stepped into the shower and lathered up. On his way back into the audience, clad in a white bathrobe, he managed to snatch a copy of the script.
A Crate of FurbiesKatie Hafner's profile of John included this section on Furby:
Dave Hampton was a frequent attendee at AMW. One year he bought a large box full of Furbies as gifts for the attendees. At John's instigation, a few of us turned them all on, replaced them carefully in the box, carried the box carefully into the room where the meeting was underway, and shook the box. Whereupon they all woke up and started to talk to their friends. The sound of about a hundred Furbies in full chatter has to be heard to be believed.Mr. Wharton derives much of his satisfaction from the thrill of the puzzle itself, like the inner workings of the Furby. Apart from Dave Hampton, the inventor and engineer who created Furby and whom Mr. Wharton reveres, Mr. Wharton may understand Furby's innards better than anyone else. Although he and Mr. Hampton are acquainted, Mr. Wharton would never think to ask Mr. Hampton for a road map.''That would be cheating,'' he said. ''It would be like asking the guy who wrote the crossword puzzle for the answers.''
Harold Evans' They Made America;Sir Harold Evans's book They Made America: From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine: Two Centuries of Innovators has a chapter (pg 402 on) about Gary Kildall and CP/M, based almost entirely on John's work for an abortive biography. Sir Harold spoke about the book at the 31st AMW in 2005 (Motto: Never Trust a Computer Workshop Over 30!).
a defamation lawsuit, Paterson v Little, Brown & Co, against Sir Harry in Seattle, claiming the book's assertions had caused him "great pain and mental anguish". The court heard the detailed API evidence, and rejected Paterson's suit in 2007. US federal Judge Thomas Zilly observed that Evans' description of Paterson's software as a "rip-off" was negative, but not necessarily defamatory, and said the technical evidence justified Sir Harry's characterisation of QDOS as a "rip-off".Much of the technical evidence came from John, who was tasked at Intel with evaluating 86-DOS and showed that it was only a partial clone of CP/M, as described in the image of a letter to Microprocessor Report in 1994. The image comes from John's obituary by Andrew Orlowski in The Register.
Update 1: Here is the video Brian Berg linked to in this comment, with John talking about Gary Kildall at the dedication ceremony of the IEEE Milestone for CP/M.
Update 2: One of John's Easter EggsThe Wikipedia page for the Intel MCS-51 has as Reference 4:
John Wharton: Using the Intel MCS-51 Boolean Processing Capabilities Application Note AP-70, May 1980, Intel Corporation.Mark Olson provides this annotated scan of page 9-102 of the 1983 edition of Intel's Microcontroller Handbook in which it was included (it is page 46 of the PDF linked from the reference).
Click to embiggen. See this comment for another of them.
Update 3: Memorial Web SiteMichael Takamoto has set up a memorial Web site for John, from which I obtained the pictures of John's 944, alas before the vanity license plate, and of the newspaper article about it. The site includes links to two other appearances John made in the New York Times:
- John Markoff's 1994 Chip Maker's Competing Creeds, about CISC vs. RISC.
- John Markoff's 2001 My Fiji Souvenirs: Shells, Driftwood, Space Debris . . ., about John's trips to Fiji looking for debris from the Mir space station.