By Harry McCracken | Friday, January 2, 2009 at 8:11 am
Out of Town News, the iconic newsstand smack in the middle of Cambridge, Mass.’s Harvard Square, is within a month of shutting down after 54 years in business. It’s one of the most famous meeting points in the Boston area, since it’s so impossible to miss. But as the Boston Globe reports today, it also played a supporting role in one of the most famous moments in computer history.
It was at Out of Town that a young computer nerd named Paul Allen bought the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics–the one with a cover story on a built-it-yourself personal computer called the Altair 8800. Allen got really, really excited–and showed the issue to his buddy, Harvard student Bill Gates. Gates got equally excited. The two decided to develop a version of the BASIC programming language for the Altair–and that programming language was the first product of the company called, originally, Micro-Soft.
Allen and Gates were deeply into computers, and had already formed one software company together, Traf-O-Data. You gotta assume they would have heard about the Altair one way or another, and it’s therefore silly to posit that if Allen hadn’t stopped to to browse at Out of Town, there would have been no Microsoft, no DOS, no Windows, no Microsoft Mouse, no Microsoft Office, no Microsoft Bob, no MSN, no Clippy, no MSNBC, no Xbox, no Zune, no Gates Foundation, and not a single Blue Screen of Death. But it is Twilight Zone-ish fun to toy with that notion.
Within about five years of Allen’s purchase, incidentally, Out of Town played a major role in my own obsession with PCs–for many years, it had the best selection of computer magazines in the Boston area, and I bought countless copies of magazines such as Creative Computing, BYTE, and Popular Computing there. Given its proximity to Harvard, MIT, and other universities, Over the years, I’m sure many thousands of other people who were fixated on computers got most of their information on the subject from Out of Town. It may be a quaint relic of the pre-Web age, but the memories will live forever.
Cambridge city officials are trying to find another company to operate a newsstand in Out of Town’s hut-like building. (Which, incidentally, isn’t the one that Allen bought his magazine at–the newsstand moved a few yards into a new structure years later when the Harvard Square subway stop received a major makeover.) I wish them luck–for one thing, it’s going to be a tad disorienting if I ever visit a Harvard Square without Out of Town.
If it does close, I hope that Cambridge erects some sort of plaque in its honor, and that that plaque mentions Paul Allen’s purchase…
(Photo by Flickr user afagen)