City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Journal: HyperCard RIP

Written in


Rest in peace, HyperCard. One of the most important applications in the history of personal computing, in my humble opinion. Responsible for the "amazing bloom" of ideas and applications noted by Ben Hyde and Matt Jones. I made a few things with it, and I'm pretty sure they weren't in the 'amazing bloom' class—but I can certainly say HyperCard was a massive influence on who I am now.

I spent 3 years of a Computer Science degree trying to avoid programming and networks and instead heading towards artificial intelligence, human-computer interaction, 'automation and society', and ultimately tooling around on Macs. Consequently, my final year project back in 1991 involved building a new concept for educational software, based around HyperCard, and writing a dissertation on 'Gender Bias in Computer Science', looking at why so few women made it into the industry/culture at that point.

I figured a less-didactic, more-interdisciplinary approach, whereby the user/student could find their own way through a rich information set, would be more equitable. So I built a demonstration HyperCard stack around Arthur Miller's play 'Death of a Salesman' (then a personal favourite), which would have the entire text of the play, with information on the whole of '50s culture sitting behind it, at the user's beck and call. So in a passage of the play featuring a musical motif, info on '50s music would become clickable, and the user could just plunge down that rabbithole of popular culture, veering away from the text towards '50s music and beyond. If Miller referenced some item of fashionable clothing, that text would be clickable, enabling the user to widen out their interest towards that aspect of culture. Ideally returning to the text someday, but there would've been enough info to just keep – on  – going.

The stack is stuck on an 800kb floppy disk somewhere, and I guess that's where it'll stay, but here's a few vintage pics I've found in my dissertation tho:

Part of main screen
Unfinished screen for section on men's fashions - image of jazz musicians
Unfinished screen for section on women's fashions - excerpt from Raymond Chandler (I think)

The HyperCard design patterns take me right back (those rounded buttons; those early 'flat-faced' dialogue icons). Note my inconsistent interface component layout, too. I actually got much further than these images convey, but that's probably lost now. For instance, I distinctly remember recording a trumpet solo from Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue somehow (shoving an analogue tape deck up against a microphone? I can't remember if the Mac SE had such a thing…) in order to make it really multimedia. Note also the dodgy dot-matrix pointilliste style encouraged by MacPaint—an early obsession with pixels which had previously been nurtured by the Spectrum's The Artist. I was basically drawing that stuff pixel by pixel, using the pencil tool at the smallest nib setting.

Of course, I never finished it (the whole of '50s culture?!). But I wasn't alone there. Phil Gyford recalls building a conceptually similar stack, at roughly the same time:

"I never finished that stack — hence some non-functioning buttons — but I’m not sure it was ever finishable; I wanted the user to feel they could get information about anything, with tea being just a starting point from which they would head off on a branching path towards all kinds of unrelated and esoteric knowledge. What crazy, crazy days they were."

It's exactly what I was trying to do. I think those of us playing with HyperCard at that point (and using the internet in the background, without really realising we were) where actually beginning to reach out for the web. That "branching path towards all kinds of unrelated and esoteric knowledge"? What else could it be? But how could we know then?

Here's how the 21-year old me put it in 1991, in my final year BSc Computer Science dissertation (full excerpt below):

"So the underlying metaphor is of a huge chunk of cross-referenced, multi-media information which can be viewed from a number of angles which could be pre-defined or created depending on the eventual sophistication of the software."

Akin to Vannevar Bush's 'trails' notion, which I hadn't encountered then (never mind Nelson, Berners-Lee and beyond), I was driving at something which I could only conceive would sit on CD-ROM (hey, they were big then, OK? Besides, few personal computers were usefully networked.)

In other words, some kind of informational object which people could pursue their own routes through, depending on their preference, with multiple entry points—instead of Phil's tea, I had Death Of A Salesman, or McCarthyism, or hemlines, or trumpets. CD-ROMs seemed to promise such limitless space that we didn't even think about scalability. And we weren't quite ready for the infinitely 'dispersed editorial' and mass amateurisation of everything we find online now. It was perfectly conceivable, to most of us, that knowledge would be produced and structured just as it had been thought to for years i.e. by a single well-informed author, or commissioned team of same. There were technical barriers too, despite its innovative architecture.

Essentially, HyperCard wasn't structured to enable us to make the conceptual leap to conceiving of this informational object to be networked and open, with increasingly low barriers to entry as per the web. But it certainly began to lead those of a certain persuasion in that direction. We owe it a lot.


Full excerpt from my dissertation regarding the HyperCard implementation of the play Death of a Salesman. Written in 1991 – please forgive the naïvety of youth:

This stack illustrates elements of the design philosophies described in Appendix A. In particular it aims to describe an interdisciplinary approach to education. The teacher and class should work through the play together, and then the pupils should be left to explore, with the teacher on hand.

The play was written in 1949 and the stack aims to provide a taste of the early '50s for the reader. To this end, options are available describing the style of the time (from fridges to clothes, with details of the clothes highlighted e.g. double-breasted jackets, pleated baggy trousers etc., or a description of a young woman from a Raymond Chandler book); the music of the time (click on a button and a 10-second snatch of Miles Davis is played, with accompanying notes, or a description of a jazz gig from Kerouac – another reference to explore); the history and sociology of the time (the American dream); other literature in a similar vein ('Look Back In Anger', 'On The Road', 'Catcher In The Rye'); related art of the time (Edward Hopper) and so on.

The book is not forgotten as the child can click on a button to obtain author's insight into a section of the play with a possible question from the author (help from the teacher is advised), or can click another button to find out more about the author.

The key concepts of providing an information handling tool and allowing the pupil to explore the information are illustrated in this demonstration. The angle that the child views the '50s from is 'Death Of A Salesman', and this will be the primary focus of their work, but they have on tap the whole of '50s culture to immerse themselves in.

The ultimate implementation of this idea would be a compact disc (or two) labelled 'The 50s' which would contain sounds, film footage, animation and text illustrating all aspect of life during this decade. According to the user envisaged by a particular teacher, the 'focus' of the software could be set to provide some structure. So, the disc could be used in English Literature to aid in teaching the play 'Death Of A Salesman' and this play would always be readily accessible and even influence the information displayed to the pupils.

The underlying software should be dynamic enough to allow a different viewpoint to be set, say a History teacher discussing McCathyism. The software would then re-align itself around this topic, though with the same data available, and the information accessed in a way that represents this new 'bias' i.e. Arthur Miller would probably be encountered first through his performances in the dock at the Un-American Activities trials rather than as a playwright, although the pupil could then go on to view 'Death Of A Salesman' in the same way as they do in this demo.

So the underlying metaphor is of a huge chunk of cross-referenced, multi-media information which can be viewed from a number of angles which could be pre-defined or created depending on the eventual sophistication of the software. Note also that it is used as an educational tool, rather than a game-style piece of educational software which research has found to be preferred by boys.


7 responses to “Journal: HyperCard RIP”

  1. Anne Avatar

    Great post, Dan!


  2. Bill Avatar

    Wow. I remember my final project for Intro to Music Technology at Northwestern, Fall 1996. I think I used Hypertext to present an analysis of Sibelius’ second symphony. That class was sooooo far behind the times. Hypertext was the pinnacle of technology, apparently. I think that was the same year I purchased “Richard D. James” btw.


  3. Infovore Avatar

    Pick a ‘Card, any ‘Card

    The demise of Hypercard from Apple’s support pages has not gone unnoticed, it seems; it made Slashdot, and Dan Hill reminisced about his experiences with it during his degree. I too have fond memories of Hypercard. My school, unusually, had…


  4. Saltation Avatar

    Apple’s deliberate discarding of Hypercard was a sad sad loss. Bill Atkinson was truly a genius.
    From Hypercard’s About box:

    “A day of acquaintance,
    And then the longer span of custom.
    But first —
    The hour of astonishment.”


  5. maelorin Avatar

    i remember the introduction of hypercard. a few of my colleagues went out and bought macs just to get their hands on hypercard.
    some of the geekiest, technophilic people i know are applephiles. [i might be one of them, if i had the money to buy one. damn but they make some attractive, and slick, machines. and the os interface sure is perty ;)]
    i’m with you on the avoiding programming. i was done by comp sci in the early 90s – there were very few options that didn’t require programming. i’m an ok coder, a decent debugger, but by all accounts shit hot at the analytical stuff [most of my it work was tech support or tutoring, but i had a few very interesting contracts as an analyst.]
    html came in and killed my msc project (i was working on a mark-up language for hypermedia databases in a ip network environment … sound familiar?) [i was also playing at being a linux kernel coder. more effective at code optimising and bug chaser.]
    now i’m a lawyer re-trianing to be a teacher. [i sure do pick ’em ;)]


  6. Bauq Avatar

    Hypercard was a nice product. I also liked it.


  7. Dan Avatar

    Trackbacks sent to this post at the time (before I turned trackbacks off due to spam):

    » Pick a ‘Card, any ‘Card from Infovore
    The demise of Hypercard from Apple’s support pages has not gone unnoticed, it seems; it made Slashdot, and Dan Hill reminisced about his experiences with it during his degree. I too have fond memories of Hypercard. My school, unusually, had… [Read More]


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