Eject, eject!

In 1992 the Newton group at Apple was in a small, unmarked building a mile off-campus on Bubb Road. It was a pretty good location for a project that was secretive and needed isolation from the rabble on the main campus; while we didn’t have any special card locks on our doors, and any Apple employee could come by, the distance kept random people from coming over and let us work in peace.

Newton was one of John Sculley’s favorite projects, and that’s probably one of the reasons we were the first (or maybe second) group to move into the new Infinite Loop campus that Apple had started building near 280. They had nearly finished Building One, and we moved into it around the beginning of December. I remember it raining a lot.

The building wasn’t /entirely/ finished, and there were pieces of it that were new and mysterious. The fire alarm system kept going off, for instance. Some of this was teething trouble and bad sensors, but rumor had it that the construction crews were hitting the alarm because they were frustrated at having to work around the Apple employees who had just moved in.  The alarm system triggered the dramatic closing of some big fire doors, the kind you might find in a “that’s no moon” kind of battle station. It was pretty cool the first few times, but after about the tenth twice-daily “accidental alarm” trip it got somewhat tiresome.

And there was a mysterious button near the bathrooms on our floor.  Just a metal plate with a little round, black button in its center. No sign or indication about what might happen when you pressed it, and nothing seemed to happen if you /did/ have the courage to press it.

Nearly everyone in Newton was working crazy hours at this point; eighty hour weeks were pretty common. While the end wasn’t in sight, we were making good progress on some hard problems. Well, handwriting recognition was still a big bet, and there were a lot of issues around memory footprint and storage, and the development environment was behind, and the language the applications would be written in was still being designed, and PCMCIA card support was rocky, and IR and faxing were flaky, and the built-in applications were still in a lot of flux, not to mention gesture recognition, shape drawing and sound, and battery life, and ROM space, and how we were going to patch ROMs with only a 20K budget of RAM. But aside from those issues, and a few other things (like the schedule), the project was going okay.

Meanwhile at home, I’d purchased a new Sony CDROM drive for my PC so that I could install the newly released Yggdrasil Linux (as if I had any time to do this, but hey). The drive came with a little sheet of sticky labels that you were supposed to apply to the drive’s bezel; there were a couple of arrows, some labels with “pause”, “play”, “eject” and “stop”, and a bunch of digits and letters. These looked very professional and were backed with wonderfully strong adhesive; someone at Sony wasn’t messing around. It seemed a shame to waste the sheet, so I put the labels in my pocket one morning and headed to work.

Around 10 or 11 that night I was wandering around waiting for a build to finish when I happened to pass by that mysterious button near the bathrooms. I looked around, and was alone in the hallway. I carefully peeled off a couple of the CDROM stickers and placed the “Eject” sticky and one of the arrows over the button.

It looked really official and imposing. I didn’t expect them to last more than a couple of days before some building manager or construction worker would see it, tear the stickers off and put up a real sign. But in the mean time, giving people a little more mystery seemed like fun.

—-

I don’t know who first spotted my mini prank, but over the next few months people would have casual conversations about that button. “What does the ‘Eject button’ do?” /  “I pressed it but nothing happened.” Going to the bathroom became “Visiting the Eject Button.” It came up a few times in meetings. What did it do? Did it actually eject anything? That seemed a little scary. There wasn’t any sound, how could that be?

Now that it had a name, it seemed that people were even /more/ puzzled by that button. I kept my mouth shut, except for a couple of friends.

More months passed. We shipped the Newton (a few months too early, in my opinion) and moved to another building in Infinite loop. About a year later I left Apple to join a start-up run by some other ex-Newton people. Eventually Newton was canceled by Steve, and people went their separate ways. I’ve worked with a number of ex-Newton folks over the years, at other companies. They’re good people.

A couple of days ago, one of my ex-cow-orkers emailed me this photo.

EjectButtonSmall

Ha. Over 20 years later, the Eject Button is still there. I had no idea it would last so long.

I wonder if Steve ever pressed that button, or wondered what it did?

(To clear up the mystery: The Eject Button turns on the after-hours air conditioning for a while. The contractors building the campus hadn’t bothered to label it, so I did it for them :-) Those of you still at Infinite Loop who had no idea what that button does, now you know. Nice job on the MacBook Pro, by the way; I rarely bother to get my Windows laptop out these days).

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19 Responses to Eject, eject!

  1. I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting a Newton developer, to my knowledge. But I follow you on Twitter and subscribe to your RSS feed. I was twenty-something when the Newton came out and I loved it — still have it in the basement somewhere, in the original box. It was a great product that was clearly before its time, and although I love my iWhatevers, for my money the handwriting recognition was the best thing and it has never been fully replicated. Cheers.

  2. Josh renaud says:

    I love this story, Landon. When I was in college 10 years ago, I was editor of the newspaper when we moved into a new building, and I remember doing one or two things like this. Unfortunately, my modifications don’t seem to have stood the test of time.

  3. Marcin says:

    Great story! Thanks for sharing.
    I remember I read about Newton in one of the Polish computer magazines in the 90’s. It was like a box from the future. Pretty amazing. I had an Amiga 500 back then..

  4. Dithermaster says:

    What a great story! I love pushing buttons. I worked at a place that had 12-key pad like a phone for the security system. Each of the number buttons beeped but the * and # didn’t, so I figured they weren’t hooked up. I got into the habit of pressing one or the other when I passed by. One day I pressed both. A little while later the cops showed up and asked if everything was alright. Our receptionist said everything was fine, but they kept asking. Turns out, pressing both of those keys was something you could do if you were being coerced into unlocking the building. Who knew? Not me. Sorry about that co-workers!

  5. MikeA says:

    Watch out about pressing random buttons. I was not there for the following story, but got it from a usually fairly reliable source (how’s that for weasling?)

    Back in the day, computers had lights. Lots of them. The bigger the machine, the more things might be useful for debug. Really big machines had panels that, if you could set them horizontally, you could sleep on. Before LEDs got cheap enough to use on even million-dollar machines, and after the move to transistors, so Neon bulbs were out, they used little incandescent lightbulbs. Of course, those can burn out, and you don’t want to, in the midst of asking yourself: “Did I mess up the ATAN function or is the F.P. Pipe borked” have to consider “or is that light off because it’s burnt out?”. So there was a way to test the lamps. This often took the form of a “lamp test” pushbutton which my source once idly pressed, at which point this behemoth system crashed hard. It seems the “lamp test” worked by jamming a ‘1’ into every latch that had a lamp attached. Sort of like piping Jabberwocky into the JTAG chain on your RasPi, but more expensive.

  6. Alex says:

    What building/floor? I want to go visit it today, unless it’s in exec territory.

  7. Jerry Ballard says:

    ‘In my house there’s this light switch that doesn’t do anything. Every so often I would flick it on and off just to check. Yesterday, I got a call from a woman in Germany. She said, “Cut it out.”‘
    -Steven Wright

  8. Richard Murray says:

    Here’s hoping that there will be an unmarked button in the new “spaceship” campus and someone will but a Launch label above it.

  9. Mike says:

    Great story! I was an intern at Apple in the Casper group and also among the first to move in. Since I was staying on from summer to fall it would have been October or so. I worked in a windowless lab deep in the building, and when the fire alarm went off and the big doors slammed it was rather upsetting as the hallway layout was suddenly unfamiliar and I couldn’t find my way out.

  10. Jim says:

    What strikes me is that, in 20 years, it doesn’t look like anyone’s even picked at the labels. That’s reverence.

  11. jtadetroit says:

    That also says something about Sony’s meticulous approach and quality in those days: the label is still where you stuck, good as new, 20 years later.

  12. Tim Dierks says:

    When you mentioned the “mysterious button near the bathrooms” I knew exactly which button you meant and what it did. (Although I don’t think I ever came across the one with the ‘Eject’ stickers.) It’s weird that I remember a single detail of a building I worked in 20 years ago.

    I also remember (hopefully correctly) that the fire alarms go “EEEEEEEEE”.

  13. Alex Rosenberg says:

    Like Tim, I instantly knew what button you were speaking of. I’d also seen your Eject label from my time in IL1.

    Over in IL2 while working on the firmware for the initial PowerPC machines (around the same time as http://www.pacifict.com/Story/ ), we simply opened the wall plate and twisted the two wires together so we didn’t have to press the “Pavlov button” every few hours.

  14. Lun Esex says:

    I worked in R&D 1 (now Infinite Loop 1) in the mid-90’s.

    So, that was your doing! :)

    (I was also a Newton developer, on my own. Still one of my favorite systems. I was always using Newt to code on the go, like 20 minutes during a bus ride, or while on a plane.)

  15. Frank Berzau says:

    We had a similar mysterious button in a company I once worked for. Of course I pressed it. Switched off the power on the entire floor :)

  16. Patricia Henrietta says:

    It might have looked more official if you’d used only one of the two stickers. Also, the symbol would be more effective if it were placed right side up… I’ll give you a C+.

  17. sezme says:

    Reminds me of a joke Steven Wright told on the Tonight Show in the 80s which went something like this: When I moved into my apartment, I noticed a light switch on the wall that didn’t do anything. Every time I passed by I’d flick it up and down. A month later I got a letter from a woman in Germany saying, “Cut it out.”

  18. sezme says:

    Oops, I hadn’t refresed this page in a couple days when I made my comment. I see someone beat me to the Steven Wright punch(line).

  19. MikeA says:

    Back when I was plausibly “the skinny guy”, I used to be tasked with stuff like pulling network cables though attic spaces and the like, in Cory Hall (U.C.Berkeley EE building). The building had been remodeled many times, and at one point I was moving in the walls (about 14 inches of dead space) when I ran across a normal looking “light switch”. It was on, and though tempted, I left it that way. The wiring, and especially the conduit, in that building were almost, but not quite, completely unlike the blueprints.

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