prefix of the year (POTY) - smart

James A. Landau <> JJJRLandau at NETSCAPE.COM
Sat Jan 14 20:18:36 UTC 2012

This topic needs some background.

What we now call "computer workstations" first appeared with MIT's Project MAC (the first time-sharing system) of 1960.  At the time they were usually called "computer terminals".  Most often the terminal was a Model 33 Teletype, now a museum piece but then so ubiquitous that it was said Moses had one at Mount Sinai.

Note:  "Teletype" is a trademark that has become genericized.  Computer and communications professionals, in my experience at least, always used the term "TTY" while laypeople used "Teletype".

Now the Model 33, and other terminals, had a very limited repertoire.  A KSR ("keyboard send/receive") version of the Model 33 could do exactly two things: "keyboard send" (operator pressed a key, Teletype printed the character and transmitted the code for that character) and "receive" (Teletype received the code for a character and printed it).

CRT terminals soon appeared, but mostly they had little capability that a TTY did not have.  Hence the early CRT terminals were sometimes referred to as "glass TTYs".

Come the 1970's and integrated circuit technology got to the point where a computer (a "microprocessor") could be put on a chip that was cheap enough to be used in mass-produced items).  Various vendors began making computer terminals with microprocessors inside (the jargon term was "microprocessor [is] on-board").  A terminal with a microprocessor inside could do such complicated operations as "hold the first line on the CRT constand while scrolling all other lines up and down."   Such a terminal was said to have "intelligent" and to be an "intelligent terminal" or a "smart terminal".

Inevitably, I suppose, a CRT that did not have the features a microprocessor could provide became known as a "dumb terminal".  Sometime in 1976-79 one vendor even advertised his brand of "smart terminals" claiming they were superior to everyone else's smart terminals.

Then stand-alone microcomputers such as the PC and the later Macintosh came along.  These microcomputers could do anything a smart terminal could and when not being used as terminals could do all sorts of other useful things, such as games.  Both smart terminals and dumb terminals became obsolete during the 1980's and nowadays are rarely found (the last survivors I know of are the TDD (Teleommunications for the Deaf) devices which may still be in use among hearing-impaired persons who haven't switched over to e-mail and Web sites.)

Although there are no more "smart terminals", the word "smart" and its synonym "intelligent" have survived to describe other devices than computer terminals, e.g. "smartphones" in which "smart" has gone from being a stand-alone adjective to a prefix.

End of lecture.

    - Jim Landau

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