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9:43am on Sunday, 20th May, 2012:

A Star in the Alignment


I heard yesterday that Charles Bowman has died.

Charles Bowman was a likeable man with a wide range of skills, from being a master mariner (he could captain a ship through the Suez Canal) to making tomato soup identical to that made by Heinz (using a recipe given him by an old lady while he cycled through France). His brother was a famous countertenor, a fact we only discovered when someone noticed the family resemblance from an album sleeve. However, it was in his capacity as manager of Essex University's Computing Service in the late 1970s that his path crossed mine.

The thing is, if it hadn't been for Charles Bowman, Roy Trubshaw and I wouldn't have written MUD.

Back then computers were very large and very expensive resources. Essex University only had one for general use: a Digital Equipment Corporation mainframe of a type called a DECsystem-10. Anyone who wanted to use it had to share its use with everyone else. This was achieved under a time-sharing system: the more people who used the computer at the same time, the less of a slice of its processing power each one got. At certain times of the day ("prime time"), usage was heavy. At other times of the day, it was less heavy. Sometimes, such as in the middle of the night when huge statistics batch jobs being run by social scientists had completed, it even had a little idle time.

The prevailing view of academics across the university was that the DEC-10 was an important resource that should only be used for serious projects. Charles Bowman, however, took the view that the best way for people to learn how to use it was to allow them to play on it. He therefore pushed through the creation of the university Computing Society, which was provided with computer time to be used at evenings and weekends expressly for non-academic work (as in, you weren't allowed to do assignments on it — that would have been unfair to non-members). Any student could join CompSoc, but most members (including myself and Roy Trubshaw) were Computer Science undergraduates.

Practically all other universities in the UK took the same view as Essex University's academics and did not allow their mainframes to be used for non-academic purposes. Because of Charles Bowman's enlightened attitude, at Essex University we could do that. Had Roy and I attended any other university, it is highly unlikely that we would have been able to create MUD. Other people would not have played it and written their own versions; other people would not have played those and evolved the concept further; ultimately, we would not have had the multi-billion dollar massively-multiplayer online role-playing game industry that we had today, or at least not in the same form (the concept of a virtual world was independently invented elsewhere, so we were always going to get them).

The vision of Charles Bowman and his faith in the power of play enabled all of this.

Lots of stars have to align for "right place, right time" to work. When it comes to the origins of virtual worlds, Charles Bowman was such a star.

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Copyright © 2012 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).