2012’s 25 Geekiest 25th Anniversaries

A look back at the most memorable events and products from 1987

Back in 1987

Network World’s 6th annual collection of the year’s “geekiest anniversaries” this time includes the births of pioneering companies such as UUNet and NEXTEL; technologies like OS/2 and SPARC; television classics topped by “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and the first “Simpsons” shorts; disposable contact lenses; the first naked-eye supernova in four centuries; and, who could possibly forget The Woodstock of Physics. If when you’re done you have time for more time travel, the first five installments of this series can be found: 2011 here; 2010 here; 2009 here; 2008 here; and 2007 here.

‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ sets off

IMDb has the storyline: “Set in the 24th century and decades after the adventures of the original crew of the starship Enterprise, this new series is the long-awaited successor to the original Star Trek. Under the command of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, the all new Enterprise NCC 1701-D travels out to distant planets to seek out new life and to boldly go where no one has gone before.” And the trivia: “If one includes the movies, nearly every member of the Star Trek crew has appeared in this series and interacted with the new crew - Kirk (in Star Trek: Generations), Bones (in Encounter At Farpoint), Scotty (in Relics) and Spock (in Unification, parts 1 & 2). Chekov and Scotty also appear in Star Trek: Generations, but they do not interact with the Next Generation crew (although Chekov DOES speak briefly to future Enterprise-D bartender Guinan). Only Uhura and Sulu have not.”

First commercial ISP: UUNet

Founded in 1987 as a non-profit entity, UUNet would become the first commercial ISP. The map at left is of the UUNet Global Network as it was planned for the first quarter of 1997.

Unabomber strikes again

On Feb. 20, 1987, Gary Wright became the 11th victim of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski when he bent to pick up what he thought was a piece of wood outside the office of his Utah computer company. He survived, although shrapnel damaged nerves in his left arm. Years later, Wright would forge a strong friendship with David Kaczynski, the Unabomber’s brother and the man most responsible for his capture. CNN has that story here.

Bill’s first billion … and pitch

This was the year that Bill Gates was officially credited with his first billion … and, on May 1, he threw the official first pitch at a Seattle Mariners baseball game. From Forbes: “In 1987 Gates was officially declared a billionaire in the pages of Forbes' 400 Richest People in America issue, just days before his 32nd birthday. As the world's youngest self-made billionaire, he was worth $1.25 billion, over $900 million more than he'd been worth the year before, when he'd debuted on the list.” We couldn’t find a picture of the first pitch – and Microsoft declined to help – so we’ll settle for what might be his only other recorded athletic feat, the video at left of him jumping over a chair.

‘Part man, part machine, all cop’

“RoboCop” debuted in American theaters on July 17, 1987. From the IMDb trivia entry about the movie we learn: “The computer that RoboCop looks up criminal records on is actually a Northern Telecom telephone switch, (and) the point-of-view shots from RoboCop include references to MS-DOS.”

Apple and Cisco go .com

Numbers 64 and 73 on the list of oldest .com domains, Apple.com was registered on Feb. 19, 1987 and Cisco.com followed suit May 14. Since the Internet Archive Wayback Machine doesn’t venture back that far, the images at left are from Apple.com on April 4, 1997, and from Cisco.com on Dec. 20, 1996.

Max Headroom commandeers airwaves

On Nov. 22, 1987, during a broadcast of a Dr. Who episode on WTTW channel 11 in Chicago, someone dressed as Max Headroom hijacked the station’s signal and spoke gibberish for a couple minutes. There had been a similar incident on a different channel earlier in the evening. Unlike the previous year’s episode involving “Captain Midnight” and HBO, the Headroom character managed to escape identification and prosecution.

Nextel's beginnings

Founded in 1987 as FleetCall, telecommunications provider NEXTEL would serve all but two of the country’s top 200 markets by 2006 and was known for its nationwide push-to-talk mobile communications system. Today it is part of Sprint Nextel Corporation.

Seeing better, less hassle

Disposable contact lenses were first commercially available in 1987, according to, what else, The History of Contact Lenses. This helped to make nerd glasses a fashion accessory.

First in four centuries

From a 2010 story on Wired.com: “At the University of Toronto’s observatory in the foothills of the Andes mountains, 30-year-old astronomer Ian Shelton was looking at photographic plates in the wee hours of Feb. 24, while listening to Pink Floyd‘s The Wall. The plates covered an area near the Large Magellanic Cloud, when he spotted an exceptionally bright spot. ‘I didn’t call it a supernova in my head at that point,’ he recently recalled. “I just thought, This thing is bright.’ ” It was the first supernova visible to the naked eye since 1604.

Foreseeing Siri

This one got considerable press attention last season after Apple released the iPhone 4S and someone realized that a 1987 video for the company’s Knowledge Navigator was something of a Siri seer.

FCC cancels ‘Fairness Doctrine’

From Wikipedia: “The Fairness Doctrine had two basic elements: It required broadcasters to devote some of their airtime to discussing controversial matters of public interest, and to air contrasting views regarding those matters. Stations were given wide latitude as to how to provide contrasting views: It could be done through news segments, public affairs shows, or editorials. The doctrine did not require equal time for opposing views but required that contrasting viewpoints be presented.”

OS/2 debuts

A product of the Joint Development Agreement signed by IBM and Microsoft in 1985, the OS2 1.0 operating system was announced in the spring of 1987 and released in December. Microsoft split from OS/2 development in 1990 and IBM stopped supporting it in 2006.

Behold the Compaq Portable III

Here’s what five grand bought you back then: A 20-pound “portable” machine packing an Intel 80286, 12MHz CPU; 640k RAM; 20MB hard drive and 10-inch gas plasma screen.

The Simpsons, the early days

On April 19, The Tracey Ullman Show aired the first of what would be 48 Simpsons shorts, a collection that would spawn The Simpsons. That first short was called “Goodnight.” The clip here is of more recent vintage and shows Lisa wrestling with a laptop.

Roll the duct tape: Perl

On Dec. 18, 1987, Unisys programmer Larry Wall releases Perl 1.0 to the comp.sources.misc newsgroup. From Perl.org: “Perl 5 is a highly capable, feature-rich programming language with over 23 years of development. Perl 5 runs on over 100 platforms from portables to mainframes and is suitable for both rapid prototyping and large scale development projects.” It’s also known far and wide as “the duct tape of the Internet.”

‘I’ve fallen and …’

Life Alert, founded in 1987, claims to have saved 31,000 people from “catastrophe” last year alone, but admit it, when you think of Life Alert the first thought that comes to mind is: “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” The C. Everett Koop ads are second, at best.

Artificial Life I convenes

Organized by computer scientist Christopher Langton, the Artificial Life I conference was held Sept. 21-25 at Los Alamos National Laboratory. According to Wikipedia, Langton’s announcement of the conference included one of the earliest descriptions of this emerging field: “Artificial life is the study of artificial systems that exhibit behavior characteristic of natural living systems. It is the quest to explain life in any of its possible manifestations, without restriction to the particular examples that have evolved on earth. This includes biological and chemical experiments, computer simulations, and purely theoretical endeavors. Processes occurring on molecular, social, and evolutionary scales are subject to investigation. The ultimate goal is to extract the logical form of living systems.”

‘Spaceballs’ invades movie theaters

Mel Brooks, John Candy, Rick Moranis, Bill Pullman … IMDb has the storyline: “King Roland of the planet Druidia is trying to marry his daughter Princess Vespa to Prince Valium, but Vespa is kidnapped by the evil race of the Spaceballs. The Spaceballs ask Roland a tremendous ransom: all the air of Druidia (you see, the air of Spaceball had serious pollution problems...). The King decides to offer a generous amount of money to a space rogue, Lone Starr, to persuade him to save Vespa. What follows is the parody of a LOT of famous SF movies.”

Sun lights up SPARC

From CPU-collection: “SPARC was invented in the labs of Sun Microsystems Inc., based upon pioneering research into Reduced Instruction Set Computing (RISC) at the University of California at Berkeley. The first standard product based on the SPARC architecture was produced by Sun and Fujitsu in 1986; Sun followed in 1987 with its first workstation based on a SPARC processor. In 1989, Sun Microsystems transferred ownership of the SPARC specifications to an independent, non-profit organization, SPARC International, which administers and licenses the technology and provides compliance testing and other services for its members.”

Black Monday takes heavy toll

On Monday, Oct. 19, 1987, markets worldwide took a horrific beating. The Dow Jones Industrial average plummeted 508 points – 22.6% -- to close at 1738.74. The PBS television report, left, has the gory details (and was sponsored by Digital Equipment Corporation).

AT&T gets a new NOC

While its network operations center at the time was but 10 years old, AT&T sprung for a new one in Bedminster, N.J. According to AT&T’s Web site, it featured “a 75-screen video wall where computer-driven support systems provided information on multiple layers and categories of network activity. Managers used computer systems and terminals to find detailed information on any switch or route in the network. They then used those same systems to issue instructions to any place in the network.” It has subsequently been replaced. … If you have ever been inside one of these, they are a sight to behold.

Turtles take to TV

The first episode of television’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” aired Dec. 14, 1987 … and don’t even bother claiming you never watched.

Cambridge Z88 debuts

From an article published in Sinclair User in April, 1987: “A portable computer has long been one of Clive Sinclair's most cherised ambitions. … And now here's the Z88. Unveiled at the Which Computer? Show on February 17 to muted wonderment, this 21 pound, A4-sized technogimmick is in the best Sinclair traditions. It's black. It's cheap. And it's not finished.” Wikipedia has more details and less snark.

The Woodstock of Physics

It was just like the first Woodstock, only with physicists instead of musicians, academic presentations instead of rock songs, and a New York hotel ballroom instead of a New York farm field. And while the March 18, 1987 meeting of the American Physical Society drew a mere 2,000 to the estimated half-million at that other Woodstock, it was only the geeky gathering that sparked a flood of media interest in high-temperature superconductors. Whether the physicists dropped any acid or had any sex remains known only to those in attendance.