Wolfram Computation Meets Knowledge

The Mathematica Story: A Scrapbook

Three Decades of Contributions to Invention, Discovery and Education

Richard Mercer, Associate Professor, Wright State University

So many memories!

In 1979 as a graduate student in mathematics at University of Washington (Seattle), I attempted to use SMP to do some calculations for my PhD thesis. I underestimated the difficulty of doing so and abandoned this effort. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned that SMP had been written by Stephan Wolfram at age 17.

The first time I met Stephen Wolfram and the first time I saw Mathematica in action was at the (First Annual) Conference on Technology in Collegiate Mathematics (ICTCM), held at Ohio State University in (I believe) October 1988. I was VERY impressed, and upon returning told my (mathematics) department chair, “This is what we’ve been waiting for.” There were less than 200 attendees; I once had an attendance list for this conference but gave it to Joanne Foster at (what is now) Pearson.

From that same conference I still have a price list for Mathematica (April 1989) for 10 different platforms. The highlight of this price list is the Cray prices of $160,000 or $240,000 depending on the model. I interpreted that as, “If anyone buys it, we will hire someone to adapt and compile it for the Cray.” I would love to know if any copies were actually sold.

In August 1989, my department chair bought me copies of Mathematica (Version 1.2) and Maple to experiment with. Since Maple did not work properly for reasons I never determined, the choice was simple! That same month I purchased a Macintosh IIcx (for well over $5,000!) and an accelerator card in order to use Mathematica at home. (I had been using Macintoshes since March 1984.)

I learned to program in Mathematica directly from The Book, as no alternatives were yet available. I did buy Roman Maeder’s book when it came out.

Later in 1989, I wrote a Riemann sum routine and demonstrated it to my honors calculus class. In order to do so, I had to roll the computer and project in on a cart, set it up, and connect everything, and when class was over I had to disassemble and return the equipment. I learned a valuable lesson that day as the students did not show much of a reaction.

In 1990, I brought four students volunteers from my honors calculus class to Ohio State to observe the Uhl–Davis–Porta project. (Trivia: Bill Davis was my undergraduate advisor at OSU in 1972-73!) We were not able to observe a class but we could use the workstations. Two of my students worked individually and the other two worked as a pair. The pair accomplished far more than the other two.

In 1991, I applied for and received an NSF grant to adapt the Uhl–Davis–Porta materials for use at my institution. After looking carefully at their materials, I decided that was not feasible and began writing my own materials. In Fall 1991, our Calculus Laboratory Project began with 10 Macintosh IIci computers and 20 students.

Also in 1991, I attended my first Mathematica Conference in Boston. I have since attended all but three (?) of the Mathematica Conferences. I have fond memories of Stephen’s talk always running over before Jean learned how control him better. Also I remember the time he had Mathematica running on four different computers in the front of the room!

In 1992, I received a second NSF grant, which paid for equipping our calculus laboratory with 20 color NeXT workstations, and a color printer! I went to a week-long training session in Chicago to learn how to set up and administer an Ethernet network for these computers.

I remember that each new version had a bigger book and more floppy disks! The most I remember is nine floppies before distribution was transitioned to optical disks.

I continued working on my notebooks for calculus, eventually ending up with over 60 notebooks, of which 55 are still in use. I also wrote a custom package, which I named “calcE”, to adapt Mathematica for teaching calculus. Most of calcE was/is about making two- and three-dimensional graphics easier to use. When Version 3 came out with structured notation, major revisions of the notebooks were required, and also when Version 6 came out with user interactivity. I continue to make minor revisions annually. If interested, you can find them here.

I remember Jerry Keiper, Neil Soiffer, and Nancy Blachman. The “Theo and Neil Show” was always my favorite talk at the conferences. Nancy would talk about things that nobody else would.

I remember how Tom Wickham-Jones would give three or more talks at each conference, but no matter how busy he was he would always make himself available to talk to me.

I am now just starting on the Version 10 beta, while our university still has Version 8 installed! (Probably we’ll go to Version 9 next fall.)

I remember asking Stephen at a conference when Mathematica would become available for the iPhone. He was not happy with that question! But it should happen soon, right?

For the future… Mathematica will continue to change of course, but be careful! Many good programs (and operating systems) have actually become worse due to feature creep and over-complicated user interfaces. Your challenge is now to make it better without making it bigger.

It’s been a good 25 years! Thanks for all the memories.