A few years back, I oversaw the publication of Alvy Ray Smith’s family history, Dr. John Durand of Derby, Connecticut, and His Family, for a small press in Boston. I met him through a mutual acquaintance, and found him to be very funny, engaging, and intensely interested in his family connections. Little did I know at the time that he had an illustrious background in high-tech, as the first head of computer graphics at Lucasfilm, a co-founder of Pixar animation, and a founder of Altamira, which was purchased by Microsoft in 1994.
I recently contacted him via email, and mentioned that I had picked up The Pixar Touch, a history of the founding of Pixar, and noticed in there that it was while he was at Lucasfilm that he and his colleagues had originally used Digital Equipment Corp.’s VAX computers. Designed by Gordon Bell for DEC, the VAX was significant because of its capacity for editing computer graphics. Appearing in 1978, the VAX is considered by many to be the most successful microcomputer in history.
In an email he recently sent me, Smith recalled an interesting anecdote from his days at NYIT’s (New York Institute of Technology) computer lab: “Yes, the VAX was very important to us. We had serial no. 1 (actually there were two serial no. 1!) because CMU (Carnegie Mellon Univ.) traditionally gets serial no. 1, but ours was ready before theirs, so both were made serial no. 1). And serial no. 1 was amost dropped off the end of the delivery truck at delivery to NYIT. I happened to emerge from the computer graphics lab building just in time to see the receiving truck (a NYIT vehicle) moving slowly away from the Digital truck, with nobody aboard, and the VAX poised between the two, held up by both. The truck’s door was open, however, so I ran as fast as I could and leapt into the cab, stomping strongly on the brake. This saved the day! If not the lab. (The NYIT group became the Lucasfilm group, became the Pixar group).”
– Christopher Hartman