The Ecphorizer

Other People's Mail

Issue #46 (June 1985)

Editor's Note: The following is a genuine exchange of correspondence between Apple Computer Inc. and one of their customers.  It all started with a light-hearted glossary entry that somehow eluded the corporate watchdogs and slid into an early Apple user's manual:

write-only memory: A form of computer memory into which information can be stored but never, ever retrieved, developed under government contract in 1975 by Professor Homberg T. Farnsfarfle. Farnsfarfle's original prototype, approximately one inch on each side, has so far been used to store more than 100 trillion words of surplus federal information. Farnsfarfle's critics have denounced his project as a six-million-dollar boondoggle, but his defenders point out that this excess information would have cost more than 250 billion dollars to store in conventional media. Compare read-only memory, read-write memory, random-access memory.

Apple Computer, Inc.
Cupertino, California

Dear Apple:

Though some have ascribed the development of write-only memory to Professor Farnsfarfle, a careful examination of the historical record will reveal that it was Soviet scientist Dr Constantine Romanov in the early 1970s who first developed a write-only memory chip.

The Soviet Government eagerly embraced the development of WROM (called "WORM" by some to distinguish it phonetically from ROM). It seems that the Soviet bureaucracy had massive amounts of documentation that it had been keeping since the 1917 revolution on citizens who had been sent to labor camps in Siberia. A write-only memory chip of the type that Dr Romanov developed provided an ideal way of storing this huge amount of information.

In fact, the Soviet enthusiasm for WROM, to the extent that other areas of computer science have suffered neglect, has been cited as a possible reason for the state of computer science in the Soviet Union today.

Eric Thurston
Burnsville, North Carolina

Dear Eric:

As author of the WROM wreference in the manuals, I have been assigned to defending my ascription of its invention to Homberg T. Farnsfarfle, friend, fellow scientist, and mentor.

While it is true that the Russian Romanov did, for all practical purposes, invent the first WROM, it is hard to characterize a five-story building spread over three and a half acres as a "chip." There is, of course, ample evidence that Romanov had intended for this behemoth vacuum-tube computer to be read/write. Unfortunately, the only CRT in Russia was on the Premier's desk screening The Beverley Hillbillies, and their ancient teleprinter was capable of only 23 characters per minute. Coupled with an absence of non-volatile mass storage and a mean-time-between-failure for the 273,000 vacuum tubes of 3.4 seconds, the computer was, in effect, the world's first WROM.

Well, almost...

On August 23, 1972, the following article appeared in Pravda:

The Balkans. Russian hero Constantine Romanov (no relation to Western lackey-dog restaurateur) today announced he retrieved name of young Russian traitor from Kosmotuber Komputer.

Komputer signalled name by blinking on and off vacuum tubes in decadent Western Morse code. Name was Gorbachev, Mikcwe39sa. Authorities now search for running-dog spy with numbers in name.

One might also make a case for Fansfarfle having been inspired by Romanov's creation, since he summered in the Balkans during 1974, but in fact this was not the case: Homberg spent the entire season comatose on cheap local vodka.

No, the famous Farnsfarfle chip was, in fact, the result of an equally serendipitous event, when the drunken professor attempted to slide a sponge into his prototype disk drive. He discovered that if it were first moistened, it could not only be slid into place, but seemed quite incapable of being filled up with data. He later went on to test material after material, all with equally positive results. He finally settled on the present design, created from the innards of a stuffed animal.

The exact nature of the final product, connected by two tiny wires to the expansion slot of an original Apple I, was described in my original glossary entry:

Approximately 1 inch on a side, Professor Farnsfarfle has so far stored more than 100 trillion words of surplus federal information in the tiny, foam-rubber cube.

This timeless prose was edited by our careful editors, so red of pen, in the fear that some poor soul would think my misplaced modifier was an accident. Unfortunately, in their zealous regard for making the world safe for English grammar, they left out the key to his marvelous invention: that tiny, foam-rubber cube captured from a hole in his very own Teddy.

Romanov and Fansfarfle both struck upon WROM due to their mutual incompetence, but only Farnsfarfle had the vision, blurred as it may have been, to realize the implications, the possibilities, the future.

Sincerely yours,
Bruce Tognazzini
Apple Computer Human Interface Group

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