On TRON and Steve Jobs and the Software Internet
Richard Kenneth Eng
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This was one of my most amazing discoveries for me more than 10 years ago, finding out that Alan Kay had an important role in developing “Tron.” Bonnie MacBird had been in the movie business for some years. She was also an early technologist. As I remember reading, she was probably the first person in Hollywood to use a database for cataloging film material. Kay and Bonnie met, because she was looking for computer expertise for her storywriting for “Tron,” re. everything having to do with computer internals, and interesting ideas about computing’s potential. She worked on the script for “Tron” with Alan on a Xerox Alto, and it may have been the first movie script written on a computer.

Bonnie said that the character Alan Bradley, the developer of the Tron program inside the mainframe in the story, was named after Alan Kay.

Over the years, I’ve picked up interesting trivia about the connection between Kay and this movie. One was that the whole idea of having “little computer people” in the computer world came partly from a concept Kay talked about with the producers of “Tron,” called “agents.” It was an idea developed in the 1960s, where intelligent programs on a network would try to assist you in finding material you’re interested in, or would help you find something you’re actively searching for. It’s something that we still don’t have yet.

Kay’s notion of the Dynabook, personal computing, had an influence on the story, re. open access to computing resources, and liberating users from centrally controlled mainframes, even though in the story, all that happened is that the controls within the mainframe were banished.

Kay’s favorite computer system is the Burroughs B5000. I haven’t gotten documentary proof of this yet, but I came upon a really interesting coincidence when doing research on this system, and I can’t help but think that it was transplanted into the movie. One of the key system components inside the B5000 was called the Master Control Program (MCP)… As you’ll remember, that was the name of the villainous program inside the mainframe in the movie. Such a shame! :)

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