Mitch Waite

Computer book author, publisher, web designer, and entrepreneur

1981 – Pascal Primer

Around 1980, I noticed a pivotal shift in my working dynamic with Howard Sams, my primary publisher at the time. They had recently brought on board their very first marketing manager, Janice Harrington. She was a remarkable woman with an illustrious background in the upper echelons of the publishing world. Her arrival signaled a bold departure for Sams, which had, until then, exuded a somewhat provincial, Midwestern ethos. Back when I began my association with them, I was somewhat of an anomaly; they introduced me with a mix of bewilderment and pride as their newest author — a West Coast native who lived on a houseboat, basked in a hot tub, adorned the walls with peacock feathers, filled the air with the scent of incense, and reveled in the tunes of the Beatles. Janice and I quickly developed a mutual respect, and this gave me the confidence to ask for Sams to stretch its marketing beyond its staid history of selling repair manuals for televisions.  

In the early 80s, with the popularity of personal computers exploding, demand was high for books that explained how to unlock the computers potential. Most PCs offered some flavor of the BASIC programming language, and I was fortunate to have authored one of Sams best-selling titles for BASIC. In the mid-70s, the foundational book ‘Pascal User Manual and Report’ by Kathleen Jensen and Niklaus Wirth was published. Pascal offered a technical leap beyond BASIC, it had more functional sophistication, it allowed greater optimization and higher efficiency.  

In 1978 the first version of Pascal for PCs was developed at the University of California, San Diego. UCSD Pascal was an influential system because it used the Pascal language in a portable operating system known as the UCSD p-System. This system was designed to be machine-independent, using a virtual machine approach, which allowed the same Pascal program to run on different types of hardware.

Around this time, I met David and Annie Fox. In 1977 they both started the Marin Computer Center, the world’s first non-profit microcomputer center, and a new addition to the SF Bay Area. Its purpose was to expose the world to the power and value of the personal computer. I admired the Fox’s, often had dinner together, and discussed the bright future for PCs. David wanted to write a good book for teaching Pascal and complained that the current texts were generally impenetrable. 

After some brainstorming, David and I decided that a book on Pascal for beginners would be a financial success. Like any creative entrepreneur David asked if I could get Howard Sams to give us special features in the book. He wanted a second color, and a large 8 x 10” format with lay-flat binding. He loved the idea of a visual fun book and so asked if we could hire his artist sister Randee Fox to draw cartoons to illustrate the programming concepts and get Sams to pay for them. He wished for a folding Pascal syntax summary card in the back of the book, one that could be easily removed. Finally, he wanted an advance on the book, which I had avoided asking Sams for over the prior years. Those were high expectations for Sams, who was run by good-hearted, salt-of-the-earth “short-sleeve farmer” Hoosiers. But with Janice now in charge of marketing, coupled with the success of my prior 8 titles, timing to negotiate these extended features was perfect.

David and I presented the book proposal to Sams for Pascal Primer. Janice put up some resistance to all the special publishing features we asked for, but her protests did not seem that resistive and eventually she agreed to all our terms expect we had to pay Randee for her artwork. David assigned me the introductory chapters and dived into the meat of the book. He turned out to be an excellent writer with an eagle eye to details and worked much harder than most authors I’d worked with. The only problem was David was also co-running their computer center and raising a new child, which were like two full time jobs. Our deadline slipped a few times, and I learned to charm Janice to not give up on us. “Languages are timeless,” I argued, and so let’s take the time to make the book perfect. Her response was, “Perfect is the enemy of Good,” and if we are too late the book will fail. 

We managed to submit our manuscript in early 1981. Sams pulled all-nighters to get it printed before summer. By May, “Pascal Primer” hit the shelves and the first run flew off the shelves. It saw four reprints and all sold well. Energized by this success, I was eager to collaborate with David Fox once more.

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